The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) received 70 complaints about harassment in the workplace last year, many of which were about law firm working environments, it revealed yesterday.
The regulator also saw a 43% increase in the number of reports about possible money laundering involving solicitors.
The figures came in the SRA’s first ‘Upholding Professional Standards’ report, detailing its investigation, supervision and legal enforcement work for the year to 31 October 2018.
In all, it received 11,508 reports about possible wrongdoing by solicitors, of which 60% came from the public and 25% from the profession. Other sources included 242 referrals from the Legal Ombudsman.
The report said one of the key themes for 2017/18 was concern about sexual harassment in the workplace, sparked by the #metoo movement. Of the 70 complaints, 13 related to the potential misuse of non-disclosure agreements.
“These are difficult and sensitive matters, so we put in place a dedicated team to investigate the concerns,” the SRA said. “The team had the benefit of expert help as we worked with the victims of harassment.”
Money laundering was another major theme, and the SRA said money laundering reports were rising “significantly”; it received 218 in the first nine months of 2018 compared with 152 in the same period in 2017.
By contrast, issues around solicitors’ conduct of holiday sickness claims were falling, which the SRA attributed to a warning notice it published, along with “the high-profile prosecutions of holidaymakers making false claims and widespread media coverage of stories of intermediaries touting for claims in popular resorts”.
The SRA said most of its investigations were resolved within a year, with the median time taken to complete an initial assessment of a concern four days, and to complete an investigation 88 days.
Of the 11,508 reports, 38% did not get past the initial assessment, while 41% were subject to an investigation. The others were redirected internally or to the Legal Ombudsman (8%), referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) (1%) or outside the SRA’s jurisdiction (1%); the rest have not been resolved yet.
Some 91% of investigations ended with a finding of no or a minor breach, while 6% led to an SRA sanction short of referred to the SDT. The remaining 134 cases went before the SDT, leading to 78 strike-offs and 26 suspensions; in 37 cases, the outcome was agreed by the SRA and solicitor(s), and approved by the tribunal.
Only 15 SRA decisions were appealed, to either the SDT or High Court, depending on the sanction, of which two were successful and one part-successful.
The SRA successfully appealed seven of nine SDT decisions to the High Court, and solicitors two of 12.
In all, the SRA spent £14.6m of on disciplinary work in 2017/18, from a budget of £52.6m.
“By keeping how we work under review, we have steadily reduced the costs of our disciplinary processes from £16.7m in 2015/16,” the report said.
SRA chair Anna Bradley said: “Most solicitors and law firms do a good job, providing high-quality legal services to the public and to businesses within a robust ethical framework.
“But when things go wrong, we have to take firm and fair action to make sure that the standards we and the public expect are upheld.
“This report shines a light on how we uphold these standards through our enforcement activity. I am looking forward to publishing updated statistics on our enforcement work on a regular basis, so that both the profession and the public can be clear about what we do.”