Sexual misconduct cases “fuelling big rise” in SDT hearings

Harassment: Increase in reports to SRA

A surge in sexual misconduct cases has triggered big rises in the budget and workload planned for the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) next year, it has emerged.

The SDT said hearing days were expected to increase by 35%, rising from 300 this year to 406 in 2019 and a budget of £3.2m was needed to tackle the increase, a rise of 10.6% on this year.

In its application to the Legal Services Board (LSB) for approval of next year’s budget, the SDT said the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had sent it a “significantly increased forecast” for the work it needed to do in 2019.

“It estimates that it will be sending 180 cases (increased from 138) and that these cases will require 325 hearing days once adjustments are made for agreed outcomes and adjournments.

“The SRA also estimates that it will be sending an additional 25 cases related to sexual misconduct and that these cases will require an additional 81 hearing days. This equates to 406 hearing days in 2019.”

The reporting of sexual harassment has risen in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, along with the related issue of solicitors’ use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Last month, SRA chief executive Paul Philip said the greater publicity around harassment, as well as publication of its warning notice on NDAs in March, had led to a “steady increase” in reports to the regulator.

Having only had 23 cases reported between November 2015 and March 2018, he said the SRA now has over 50 ongoing cases.

Despite the increase in the SDT’s actual budget, however, if variable costs associated with the increased sitting days were excluded, the requested budget actually represented a tiny decrease when compared to 2018.

The LSB was told: “The SDT has greater confidence in the accuracy of these projections than in the past. This should also mitigate the issue of historically high levels of underspend.”

The SDT said it would be spending almost 5% more on staff salaries next year, including the appointment of an additional full-time deputy clerk “considered necessary due to the anticipated increase in workload”.

General administration costs were projected to rise by 24%, again the result of increased workload, together with the introduction of the new case management system, CaseLines.

The tribunal told the LSB that there had been a “marked improvement” in the information provided by the SRA in 2018, which should “lead to more accurate forecasting”.

The LSB heard that the SDT’s expenditure had “historically been far lower” than its approved budgets. In 2016, £2.38m was spent, based on a budget of £2.9m.

The LSB said that although surplus funds were returned to the profession, clearly the situation was “not ideal”.

It added that the SDT was “expecting a much lower underspend this year”, which was “encouraging to hear”.

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