The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has come under fire for how it deals with sole practitioners and solicitors at small firms, with the chair of the Society of Black Lawyers saying they were seen as “easy targets”.
Peter Herbert said the regulator should be “forced into constructive engagement” with sole practitioners before taking regulatory action unless there has been “outright dishonesty”.
He said the SRA was “very reluctant” to take action against City law firms but sole practitioners, many of them from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, were seen as “easy targets”.
Mr Herbert said the reason why so many sole practitioners were from BAME backgrounds was because of the “overt and covert racism” they faced at mainstream law firms.
Speaking at a webinar held by law firm Leigh Day on the disproportionate impact of regulation on BAME lawyers, Mr Herbert said the SRA had the “same DNA” as other British institutions which had a “vested interest in preserving the status quo that protects White privilege”.
He called on the Legal Services Board to be “much more dynamic” in questioning the SRA on diversity and called on solicitors who had suffered from disproportionate regulatory decisions to “sue the SRA in a class action”.
Gideon Habel, a partner and head of the regulatory team at Leigh Day, said there was a feeling of “us and them” and a lack of trust between the SRA and solicitors.
He said the SRA’s “unwillingness to hold out a mirror to itself” on regulatory data remained a “major issue”.
Mr Habel said it was not clear to him why, in more than six and a half years since Professor Gus John’s report on disproportionate regulatory outcomes, it had not published data on the subject. “We are left to rely on anecdotal evidence and individual stories.”
The 2014 report said the disproportionately high representation of BAME solicitors in the SRA’s disciplinary work was caused by broader socio-economic factors around access to the profession, and not discrimination, but said the regulator needed to “look very carefully and urgently at how sole practitioners and small firms are regulated”.
Mr Habel said there was a “lack of empathy” in the way the SRA dealt with small firms, with relationship managers being replaced by a confidential helpline.
“Words are not enough and it must do more to present a human approach to its work”.
Mr Habel added that firms should make sure they had insurance so they were represented in regulatory investigations, since cover no longer featured in the minimum indemnity insurance terms.
He said insurance had “made the difference” in ensuring that Leigh Day survived its prosecution by the SRA over the way it handled Iraq war compensation claims.
Leigh Day solicitor Emma Walker took a poll of the webinar audience, which revealed that only 9% knew they had insurance. Research earlier this year by the firm found that firms wrongly assumed their professional indemnity insurance covered regulatory investigations.
In another poll, taken at the end of the webinar, 90% of the audience said they thought the SRA was not adequately tackling issues relating to disproportionality and discrimination in the regulation of lawyers.
When the same question was asked at the beginning of webinar, only 51% of audience members said they thought that.
The webinar heard powerful testimony from an anonymous female solicitor from a BAME background who said that at the end of her disciplinary process she felt a “grave sense of injustice”.
She said the process, which she described as “overwhelming”, had damaged her mental and physical health.
“Your relationship with the regulator is one of dependency. I felt like a commodity, not a person.”