SRA fines “unfair” and “schizophrenic”, solicitors argue

Willetts: SDT provides a fairer outcome

The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) approach to fines has been branded unfair and “schizophrenic” in the wake of hefty penalties handed out to solicitors convicted of drink-driving.

Specialist legal regulation solicitor Jayne Willetts criticised the SRA’s fining formula and said the figures it produced “bear no relation to the actual seriousness of the allegation or the breach”.

Speaking at the Law Society’s risk and compliance conference last week, Ms Willetts – who runs her eponymous practice in Birmingham – referenced the fines reported earlier this year for two solicitors convicted of drink-driving.

One received a fine of £10,105 – reduced from £16,842 due to co-operation – and another £13,836, which had been reduced by 20% due to his mitigation.

These were significantly higher fines than such offences had typically attracted before the SRA’s new fining guidance came into force last year.

Ms Willetts said: “To my mind it’s completely unfair and when the matters go before the [Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal], you usually get a much fairer assessment of the fine that is suitable to the actual misconduct.”

She pointed out that the solicitors had already been sanctioned by magistrates and that basing fines on income “seems to punish those who earn a lot of money and not so much others”.

She added that fines, whether for individuals and firms, were both based on gross income figures, which was also “quite unfair”.

Emma Williams, director of European risk and compliance in the London office of US firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, described the SRA’s application of its fining powers as “slightly schizophrenic”, mentioning a case from around the same period where a solicitor received money from a client into their personal bank account.

That was likely a reference to this case in February, when the solicitor was fined £10,402. The SRA described his misconduct as “serious” and showing a lack of integrity.

Ms Williams described the outcome a “very lenient” and argued that “on any level that makes no sense” when compared to the drink-driving cases. Which conduct, she asked, would the public find “more objectionable”?

Acknowledging that all cases turn on their own facts, she said the SRA needed to explain better how the fines were arrived at or it was inevitable that different outcomes would be compared.

“There is a of attention and noise around the SRA on fines with good reason,” she said.

Earlier in the conference, during a session on anti-money laundering (AML), a word-cloud of delegates’ concerns put fines as the central and biggest worry.

This followed a stream of usually five-figure fines for firms found to have been in long-term breach of the AML duties in place since the 2017 regulations, generally not having either firm-wide risk assessments, or policies, controls and procedures in place, and sometimes client matter risk assessments too.

Since we reported on the last batch of fines 11 days ago, the SRA has fined Derby firm Beighton Singh £19,482, Hertfordshire firm Austins £4,293 (it had a firm-wide risk assessment in place), Hine Downing in Falmouth £20,871 and Welsh practice Clement Hughes & Co £9,993.

    Readers Comments

  • Jane Moir says:

    I would merely add thatthe long waits for decisions on alleged misdemeanours cause significant stress and anxiety to individual’s accused of any wrongdoing and mental health issues often ensure as a direct result More attention should be paid to resolving cases more quickly

  • Catherine Smith says:

    Drink driving has a potential to kill and destroy lives.
    Why should the fine be less?

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