SDT anticipates more cases on “toxic” law firm cultures

SDT: Fewer cases

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) expects to see more cases involving “toxic and anachronistic” work cultures, it has said.

The increase in the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) fining powers to £25,000 are also likely to lead to more appeals to the SDT.

The predictions came in a report prepared by the SDT for the Legal Services Board, which has set the tribunal 10 key performance measurements.

In 2022, the SDT heard 103 cases, continuing the fall of recent years – from 168 in 2018 to 114 in 2021 – and sat for 174 hearing days, again a significant reduction. In 2021, the tribunal sat for 239 days.

The report recorded how last year saw more two-day and three-to-four-day hearings than previously. “Although it may be too soon to speculate, this may be a result of the SRA’s new enforcement regime and its referral of cases which are inherently more complex,” it said.

“With the introduction in July 2022 of the SRA’s increased fining powers of £25,000 from the previous £2,000, the tribunal expects to receive an increased number of appeals from SRA decisions.

“There may also be more cases involving allegations of what have been termed ‘toxic and anachronistic’ work cultures. Such matters will have the potential to be complex and of considerable public concern.”

Aside from failures in the administration of firms, conveyancing and private client were the two main areas of practice where those before the SDT were found guilty of misconduct – 25 and 15 cases respectively – while 17 cases did not relate to practice.

There has been an increase in recent years in members of the public seeking to bring prosecutions, with 21 applications received last year. All but three were dismissed without referral to the SRA to investigate, as was one more after the SRA had looked into it.

The SDT highlighted “an apparent trend for very late applications” from the SRA for approval of agreed outcomes.

In 2022, 27 of the 44 applications (61%) for agreed outcomes were received later than the deadline of 28 days before the hearing, compared to 45% the year before.

“This results in very inefficient use of courtrooms as well as inconvenience to members, who may have cleared several days to sit on a case that is vacated or adjourned at short notice.”

The SDT also lost 125 hearing days due to adjournment applications, with ill-health of the respondent the single biggest reason.

The speed with which the SDT produces judgments – which has often been criticised in the past – continued to improve in 2022, with 79% delivered in less than four weeks, up from 65% two years before.

The reduction in hearing days meant that the overall cost per hearing day increased in 2022 by 38% to £17,991, as administrative expenses – which totalled nearly £2.7m – are largely fixed costs.

Members’ fees and expenses fell too by £59,550 to £441,000, despite a 12% increase in fees in lieu of holiday entitlement, following the case brought by barrister Robin Somerville, who successfully claimed that he was a ‘worker’ when he sat as a tribunal chair for the Nursing and Midwifery Council and entitled to sickness and holiday pay.

We reported last year that the SDT was set to move premises after its existing landlord pulled the offer of a new lease, leading to its budget being increased by £1.2m to cover the costs of this.

The report, which was produced in April, negotiations with respect to a property within ‘legal London’ and “much more suited to our needs”, were at an advanced stage with a view to moving in next month.

It predicted an annual saving of around £300,000 a year over the 10 years of the lease, driven largely by almost halving the space it currently occupied.

The SDT’s costs are paid by solicitors through their practising fees.

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