Members of the public still do not “fully understand” the role of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the organisation’s independent reviewer has found.
This meant that when the SRA says there are “no public interest risks” from an allegation made against a solicitor, it is often being misinterpreted as an exoneration.
In its first year as independent reviewer of complaints about the SRA, the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) said the regulator had “high standards” in dealing with complaints about its service, which represented a “remarkably small” proportion of its caseload.
However, many members of the public “appear to have a misconception as to how the SRA approaches complaints about solicitors, and this in turn contributes to complaints about the SRA itself”.
CEDR said the public did not understand the distinction between the handling of complaints about the SRA and the reporting of alleged misconduct by solicitors.
“This has led some individuals who have reported allegations of misconduct having unrealistic expectations with regard to actions that the SRA might take.
“In such situations, the corporate complaints team strive to explain the way that risk-based regulation works, with a risk assessment being undertaken before any allegation is investigated fully.
“Frequently, however, their message that no public interest risks arise from a particular allegation is mistakenly interpreted as being a complete exoneration of the solicitor concerned.”
CEDR said that in the 13 months to 31 October 2019, it received 156 initial complaints. Only 10 of them were from solicitors.
Almost half, 74, were closed, either because they were premature and the first two stages of the SRA’s complaints procedure had not been completed or because the person complaining decided not to go ahead.
Of the remaining 82, CEDR had reviewed 57 by the end of the period. Just under half of these (28) were complaints that the SRA had not taken action against alleged misconduct by the other side’s solicitor.
A slightly smaller number (20) were complaints about failure to take action against the complainant’s own solicitor.
Six concerned alleged misconduct by another solicitor and three were from solicitors unhappy with the action the SRA had taken against them.
Delay was the most common issue raised, featuring in 23 of the complaints, followed by the SRA’s failure to explain (11).
CEDR said that although the delays had “clearly taken place in many of the cases”, in every instance they had been “appropriately acknowledged, explanations given and, in some cases modest ex gratia payments offered”.
The independent reviewer investigated six cases of bias and discrimination, all of them arising from “situations in which a complainant had expected the SRA to take a particular course of action and argued that the SRA was discriminating against them by declining to do as they wished”.
But CEDR found “no evidence of any actual bias or discrimination by the SRA” and did not uphold any of the six complaints.
It found “no failings and had no recommendations to make” in 49 (86%) of cases investigated, compared to a figure of 67% for the previous year. In the remaining eight cases, half involved “minor failings” already addressed and half the need for additional explanation.
Rachel Pillinger, the SRA’s head of corporate complaints, said the number of complaints about its service had fallen from 1,366 in 2015-16, to 827 in 2017-18 and 815 in 2018-19. Most are dealt with at stage one (by the unit where the complaints arose) or stage two (the SRA’s complaints team).
She told last month’s meeting of the SRA board that the regulator had also seen a reduction in the number of complaints received about the way it communicated since it introduced new guidance and training, although “we know there is more to do”.