SRA seeks whistleblowing role as part of SLAPPs action

Philip: Looking to encourage reporting

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is set to make it easier for law firm staff to blow the whistle on their employers, as part of its work on strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).

It has also emerged that the regulator is currently investigating more than 20 possible cases of possible misconduct in relation to SLAPPs.

The SRA is to become the first legal body to seek statutory designation as a ‘prescribed person’ under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

A prescribed person provides workers with a mechanism to make their public interest disclosure to an independent body where the worker does not feel able to disclose directly to their employer, where that body might be in a position to take some form of further action on the disclosure.

A worker will potentially qualify for the same employment rights as if they had made a disclosure to their employer if they report to a prescribed person.

There are currently around 60 prescribed persons, plus local authorities, such as the Financial Conduct Authority, Ofsted, Ofcom, the General Medical Council and the Environment Agency.

Newly released papers from the SRA’s board meeting earlier this month show that chief executive Paul Philip said it would seek designation following discussions with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“This should encourage reporting about SLAPPs and other concerns, by giving enhanced employment law rights to whistle-blowers who disclose wrongdoing to us,” he explained.

The role of lawyers in acting for oligarchs and the like in using litigation with the aim of suppressing legitimate criticism and stifling public debate has been in the spotlight since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In March, the Ministry of Justice issued a call for evidence on SLAPPs, but described them as “a behavioural issue requiring regulatory interventions” against lawyers as much as using legislation.

The SRA issued guidance on conduct in disputes the same month, referencing SLAPPs for the first time.

Meanwhile, a report in April from the Foreign Policy Centre, a thinktank, and freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 called on the SRA and other legal regulators to do more to deal with SLAPPs.

Mr Philip told the board that it has established “a dedicated cohort of cases where we have received reports or intelligence that a firm may have been involved in a SLAPP case and we currently have more than 20 cases in that cohort”.

It has written to MPs and peers that have named specific law firms in Parliament to ask for “any further information available to them to assist us in investigating any misconduct”, as well as all the firms named.

“We have also been in contact with organisations such as the Foreign Policy Centre and the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe to request details of potential SLAPP cases that they are aware of so we can investigate any potential misconduct by any individuals or firms regulated by us.”

On the back of the disputes guidance, the SRA would shortly issue a warning notice as well “to further highlight the issues we have seen [with SLAPPs] and how these issues relate to our standards”.

Mr Philip said: “This is to put firms on notice of the behaviours that are unacceptable, and which will amount to a breach of our standards.”

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