Members of the public would take a stricter line on senior solicitors who err in their private lives than would solicitors themselves, research has suggested.
When the results of an electronic poll of over 700 solicitors at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) compliance officer conference this week were compared with initial consumer findings from a consultation on sanctions, it emerged that the public would also be kinder to the young.
Though in some respects the views of the public and profession were similar, the biggest difference was revealed when the two groups were asked what sanctions should be imposed on a newly qualified solicitor who was caught fare-dodging on the tube after a night out, and then accepted a penalty notice and paid a fine of £60.
No members of the public thought the matter should be treated as ‘serious’, with a possible fine; ‘very serious’, with a large fine or suspension; or ‘the most serious’, to be punished with a striking off.
A quarter of solicitors would have treated the incident in this way, however, with 15% classing it as serious, 9% as ‘very serious’ and 2% wanting the young lawyer to be struck off.
When it came to the sanctions which should be imposed on senior solicitors, it was the public’s turn to demand a tougher approach.
Considering the case of a senior solicitor at a “large corporate law firm”, found guilty of drink-driving and fined £1,000, more than half the public (51%) regarded the matter as ‘serious’ or worse.
Although only 3% wanted the partner to be struck off, compared to 2% of solicitors, some 34% wanted him or her to be suspended or to pay a large fine – only 14% of solicitors supported this.
If the partner involved was a criminal law advocate, the gap was even bigger, with 39% of the public pushing for suspension or a large fine, compared to 9% of solicitors.
The public were equally unmerciful to a criminal lawyer who attempted to act for two clients in a murder case, realising there was a conflict of interest but continuing, with the result that the trial had to be postponed. A total of 36% demanded that the solicitor should be struck off, compared to 8% of lawyers.
Members of the public were less tolerant than solicitors of lawyers who sent unsolicited sexual images or got drunk and made racist comments.
In the case of a solicitor forced to stand down as a parliamentary candidate when the local paper reported he had sent unsolicited sexually explicit photos of himself to party workers, 43% of the public wanted a large fine or suspension. The most popular choice for solicitors was to treat the matter only as ‘of some concern’.
In a further case of an anonymous blogger, who was clearly a solicitor, getting angry with a barman and describing him in a “racially derogative way”, 19% of the public wanted the lawyer struck off, compared with 7% of solicitors.
Crispin Passmore, executive director of policy at the SRA, told delegates that just as the regulator was placing more trust in solicitors to represent clients, it needed to be able to trust solicitors to maintain ethical standards.
“As we set out to reform regulation, it seems that these two things should move together.
“You need to use your freedom and flexibility in a way that maintains trust and confidence. More freedom has to go alongside more responsibility.”