The proportion of black and minority ethnic solicitors (BME) named in complaints about conduct to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) surged last year, the third year in which the figure has risen.
According to the SRA’s monitoring report for 2010, which gives data on its regulatory activity broken down by ethnicity, gender and age, a total of 355 reports of misconduct were made against BME solicitors.
This amounts to 27% of the total, compared with 19% in 2009 and 16% in 2008. However, many such cases are closed for lack of evidence of misconduct or because they do not fall within the SRA’s jurisdiction.
The jump came amid a massive 62% reduction in reports overall, from 4,059 in 2009 to 1,558 in 2010. This is likely to be due to the SRA switching to firm-based regulation in February 2010, under which matters are pursued in the name of firms rather than individuals.
SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said the authority would publish an account of its progress in tackling unexplained patterns of disproportionality before the end of this year. He pointed out that the SRA had published work on the subject by psychologists Pearn Kandola, in July last year. Since then “we have worked hard to examine and audit key areas of our regulatory decision-making,” he added.
The report on progress against the Pearn Kandola research – which suggested that in some areas the SRA might operate to the disadvantage of BME solicitors  – was originally timetabled for publication in September.
In 2010, BME solicitors made up about 12% (14,289) of the total practising population of 122,760. By gender, women were 46% and men 54%.
Analysis of the data found that reports to the SRA also disproportionately claimed that male solicitors aged over 40 had breached the code of conduct. Among reports that subsequently led to a conduct breach being upheld, black and white solicitors were represented in similar proportions, which the SRA said showed its decision-making was even-handed.
As in the previous three years, women were under-represented in “upheld” cases compared to men. There was no disproportionality between BME and white solicitors in the conduct cases upheld.
In another worrying statistic, the proportion of BME solicitors subject to SRA intervention (closing down) grew to 38% (25 of a total of 78 partners) in 2010, compared to 33% in 2009. This high figure may be partially explained by the fact that all of the firms which the 78 partners worked at had one or two partners – a category in which BME solicitors are over-represented.
At the same time, overall there was a 39% reduction in the total number of solicitors subject to intervention, from 127 in 2009 to 78 in 2010.
While the involvement of BME solicitors in cases referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal remained disproportionate, the number fell in 2010 to 31% as against 34% in 2009. The total number of referrals also continued to fall – from 451 to 311 – as it has in the previous two years.
Dealing with the disproportionate presence of BME solicitors in regulatory data is one of the SRA’s nine “equality and diversity objectives” for the year 2011-12.
In January the SRA published an impact assessment of its enforcement strategy which pointed out that while the authority had referred BME solicitors disproportionately to the SDT, in conduct cases its “outcomes reduce the disproportionality experienced by BME solicitors by recording no action for a disproportionate number of the cases raised against BME solicitors”.