It is “impossible for solicitors to leave their practising certificates at home completely” when it comes to behaviour in their personal lives, the president of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has said.
There has been a growing debate about the extent to which professional regulation extends to conduct in lawyers’ personal lives and Ed Nally addressed it in his introduction to the SDT’s 2020 annual report, published today.
“Sexual misconduct and offensive social media activity are two obvious high-profile areas, but there will no doubt be many other areas where the delicate balance between personal and professional conduct arises,” he wrote.
“My personal perspective is that it is impossible for solicitors to leave their practising certificates at home completely and expect to act with total impunity in a personal capacity.
“It would be most odd if appalling behaviour in a personal capacity could completely be disregarded in terms of whether it also constitutes professional misconduct, or whether it calls into question the integrity of an individual.”
Mr Nally stressed that the SDT’s role was to consider where the regulatory reach of the Solicitors Regulation Authority starts and stops, “and we must do that fearlessly in the public interest”.
“The public and the profession should expect no less of us. What I will say is that the privilege of trust and confidence that the public endows upon the profession has to be maintained.”
In 2020, 55 solicitors were struck off, two indefinitely suspended, 17 suspended for a fixed period, 38 fined and one reprimanded.
Of the 113 cases that concluded in the year, allegations were withdrawn by the SRA in one case and against one of the three respondents in another. Allegations were not proved against 12 respondents in total (in nine cases).
Some 55 cases saw applications by the SRA and respondents for the SDT to approve agreed outcomes, but it refused 29% of them.
The report said it was “too early” to draw firm conclusions about any impact from the 2019 change from the criminal to the civil standard of proof, “but it does not appear to have impacted on the type or outcome of allegations”.
None of the nine lay applications for prosecution considered by the SDT were certified as showing a case to answer.
In all, the SDT sat for 253 hearings days in 2020, with the average length of hearing being two days. Its budget was £3.14m, paid for by solicitors through their practising fees.
Like all other courts and tribunals, the SDT moved to remote hearings during the pandemic, and Mr Nally predicted that they would continue to have a role once it has passed.
“It has been particularly pleasing to see how we have been able to conduct case management hearings remotely with speed and efficiency,” he said.
The report also revealed that a new key performance measurement being introduced in 2021 was to “ensure that the diversity profile of the SDT’s staff team and its membership reflect the diversity of the population it serves, and the solicitors profession (of England and Wales) in particular.”
The SDT has 40 panel members, equally split in gender terms, while 12.5% of those who replied to a diversity questionnaire were from an ethnic minority. But only 20% were younger than 55.
Three-quarters of the tribunal’s 17 staff were women and 36% from a minority background.