The public view information security failings at law firms more seriously than solicitors do, according to the “most surprising” outcome of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) Question of Trust exercise.
The regulator’s policy director, Crispin Passmore, said a “significant” number of lawyers said a balance needed to be struck between client confidentiality and taking files out of the office to work on.
But to his surprise, the public were less forgiving.
He was speaking on Friday at the SRA’s ‘Trust and the market: rethinking regulation’ event in London, at which he highlighted a few of the results that came out of a six-month period of engagement with the public and profession which saw 5,400 people share their views on what should happen when solicitors get things wrong.
Unsurprisingly, both the public and profession agreed that dishonesty and misuse of client money were the most serious offences for a solicitor, although the public were more sympathetic if money was replaced.
Mr Passmore said that as intent disappeared in such situations, the public were more willing to treat a matter as less serious than solicitors were.
But given various scenarios relating to confidentiality, the public rated them all more seriously than solicitors did. These ranged from a firm’s IT system being hacked to a train passenger being able to view confidential details about clients on a solicitor’s laptop.
Similarly issues linked to a solicitor’s competence – such as a solicitor providing poor advice without fully understanding the relevant law – were also viewed as more serious by the public.
Mr Passmore told the 150 people at the event that the SRA would have to decide the threshold for action in such situations, and explain it clearly.
The survey results – which will be published in full later this year – were not as conclusive around issues that related to behaviour outside a solicitor’s working life, such as getting involved in a drunken fight, fare-dodging, being found guilty of dangerous driving, or using racist language on a personal blog. There was no clear consensus on how seriously a regulator should treat such matters.
Mr Passmore said: “Trust in the profession is critical. And the overwhelming majority of solicitors maintain that trust through adhering to the high professional standards that we set. That means we can be confident that reducing bureaucracy and making it easier for law firms to grow and innovate is the right way forward.
“Yet where solicitors fall short of these standards, it is our role to step in and make sure the public are protected. These initial results show that we are taking the right things seriously; things like dishonesty, misuse of client money, or evidence of clear intent to do wrong, are all areas that matter to us, the public and the profession. I am pleased that the public and the profession have supported our approach and renewed our mandate to act.
“Other areas are more nuanced. We are considering the findings and are using them to refine our approach to judging the seriousness of offences and what action we might take. We will publish that approach – grounded in the firm evidence of the views of the public and profession – so we can be transparent about our decision making. This should further increase public and professional confidence.”