The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has rejected calls from the Law Society and practitioners to curb the amount of information it publishes about solicitors subject to regulatory sanctions.
In particular it held firm against arguments that it is wrong to publish details of referrals to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The SRA began putting decisions on its website 1 January 2008, and up to November 2011 had published 2,304 of them, including 1,076 on practising certificate conditions and 652 on referrals to the SDT. Publication is considered in each case, and in a small number the SRA has not put the decision on its website. Most come down after three years.
There have been four judicial review applications, all about the SDT referrals. Two did not proceed and in the other two, the court refused permission.
The SRA’s regulatory risk committee recently reviewed the publication policy, in part because of pressure from the Law Society, and has made some amendments, such as requiring the SRA decision-maker to consider the potential disproportionate effect of publicity on the person or body.
The most sensitive issue was referrals to the SDT, which opponents of publication argue happens too early because allegations are often amended or withdrawn, while some of the allegations are not upheld by the SDT, causing reputational damage in the meantime, especially if
they concern dishonesty.
The committee decided not to change the position, however. A paper before it said: “The key justification is that it is right for the public, including clients and regulators, to know that a solicitor is facing serious allegations at the SDT… In proportionality terms the overall impact of prosecutions that are not successful (or justified) is very small and outweighed by the benefit of the public knowing of the 95% of referrals where action is taken.”
On practising certificate (PC) conditions, the society argued that it is disproportionate to publish minor conditions that do not have a material effect on the solicitor’s right to practise, such as a requirement to attend a course. But the committee said it was in the public interest for all conditions to be on the website.
It also rejected concerns from some solicitors that decisions to impose conditions remain on the SRA website after the condition has been removed from a subsequent PC (the SRA also publishes the decision to grant a condition-free PC).
The committee said: “It may be of benefit for consumers to see that a practitioner has in the recent past been subject to practising controls and indeed the content of those controls. On the other hand, the granting of a PC free from conditions indicates that the practitioner is considered safe to practise without controls.
“An example might assist: is it relevant or not to a client (or prospective employer, perhaps) that a solicitor who now has a free PC was subject to a condition of approved employment for, say, five years? Is it right for the SRA to decide to prevent the public and law firms from ascertaining that established fact?”
The revised publication policy will now go to the Legal Services Board for approval.