Solicitors under investigation by their regulator are increasingly citing workplace bullying as a reason for their misconduct, according to a report published yesterday.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) also revealed that it has 130 open investigations into sexual misconduct in the profession.
The regulator published five reports about its operational work in the year to 31 October 2020.
Its Upholding Standards report said: “We are receiving a growing number of concerns where individuals have reported to us that workplace bullying was a factor in them breaching our Standards and Regulations.
“In cases we have seen, individuals have, for example, concealed mistakes by misleading clients, falsifying time recording and covering up missed deadlines.
“We are currently investigating almost 140 such matters where there are links to allegations of bullying and harassment.”
The SRA said it was developing guidance on workplace culture and a healthy working environment for firms that should be published later this year: “It focuses on the need to have in place appropriate policies, systems and controls to minimise the risk of this type of situation arising.”
There were 83 new allegations over harassment and inappropriate sexual behaviour in work-related environments during the year, and as of February 2021, the SRA had more than 130 open investigations.
Also as of February 2021, there were 11 open investigations concerning the inappropriate use of non-disclosure agreements, mainly in commercial disputes.
In 2019/20, the SRA opened 153 new investigations concerning money laundering, 15 investigations concerning solicitor involvement in dubious or risky investment schemes, and 16 investigations into claims being improperly brought against payday loan companies, cavity wall insulation installers and, where the issue related to mis-sold mortgage products, mortgage providers and brokers.
In all, the SRA received 9,642 reports of possible misconduct in 2019/20, 9% lower than the year before and a 16% decrease from 2017/18.
Of these, 6,021 were dismissed without investigation, 879 were redirected to the Legal Ombudsman, 196 were beyond the SRA’s jurisdiction and 2,279 were investigated, down from 3,602 the previous year, which the SRA said was due to a new assessment and early resolution process.
In 1,720 investigations, the SRA did not find a breach, or at least a serious breach, of the rules.
There were 274 internal SRA sanctions imposed, while 112 investigations led to cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal – and in turn 57 strike-offs, 18 suspensions and 38 fines.
A record 42 tribunal cases were resolved by an outcome agreed by the SRA and solicitor, and then approved by the tribunal.
While the SRA spent £866,000 on its five costliest cases during the year, the tribunal only awarded it costs of £378,000 – and £200,000 of those were lost when the High Court overturned the finding against ex-Freshfields partner Ryan Beckwith.
The SRA closed down 40 law firms in 2019/20, while £10.4m was paid out from the Compensation Fund, up £2.9m from 2018/19, with the average payout around £28,000.
The figures showed that men and solicitors from ethnic minority backgrounds continued to feature disproportionately in the SRA’s enforcement work, with the numbers largely in line with those published last year.
The SRA has various pieces of work underway to address this issue and it is currently tendering for an organisation to conduct independent research into the factors that drive the reporting of concerns about ethnic minority solicitors.
The other reports showed how the number of law firms, in-house legal teams and law centres offering ‘periods of recognised training’ continues to rise significantly, from 4,482 in 2013/14 to 5,877 in 2018/19 and 6,219 last year.
The number of apprenticeships reached 242 last year, up from 170 a year earlier.
Anna Bradley, chair of the SRA board, said: “Last year was difficult for everyone, and I’m pleased that our reports show that both the SRA and the profession rose to the challenge, adapting to new ways of working, maintaining performance and services and showing real resilience in the face of the pandemic.
“Since we published our last set of reviews, we have made significant progress in many areas, not least the work now well underway to understand and address what may lie behind the overrepresentation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors, and men, in our enforcement processes.”