Decisions taken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) under outcomes-focused regulation (OFR) need to be urgently monitored to ensure they are fair to ethnic minority lawyers, an internal report has said.
The call was made against a background of figures, published last month, showing that 27% of all conduct complaints received last year by the SRA were made against black and minority ethnic (BME) solicitors – up from 19% in 2009.
Introducing a report on progress made in tackling ‘disproportionality’ at the SRA board’s monthly meeting this week, Mehrunissa Lalani, the authority’s director of inclusion, said a series of internal audits over 18 months had found no evidence of discrimination in the way the SRA dealt with complaints.
But she argued that “OFR will have a much more flexible and fluid framework within which we make decisions, so it’s going to be even more pertinent that we are able to demonstrate fairness [in decision-making]”.
In a paper presented to the board, Ms Lalani said: “There is an urgent need to have in place a robust quality assurance framework which can assess whether decision-making which will involve a lot more discretion to be applied is indeed fair, proportionate and free from bias.”
Research into disproportionality, carried out for the SRA last year by business psychologists Pearn Kandola, made various recommendations, including a close look at the way the SRA makes decisions.
At the board meeting, lay member Sara Nathan highlighted the fact that BME solicitors are over-represented in the sorts of small law firms which in general are more likely to be the subject of conduct complaints.
According to SRA statistics, in 2010, 7.8% of BME solicitors were in sole practice compared to 4.1% of white European solicitors. Just over half of BME solicitors (50.2%) worked in firms with four or fewer partners, compared with 28.7% of white Europeans.
Ms Lalani’s paper said: “Given that smaller firms are more likely to get into difficulty or face reports… this would suggest that disproportionality may continue unless the structure of legal service providers changes.”
Also at the board meeting, SRA chief executive Antony Townsend repeated his apology to solicitors over delays to the mySRA online practising certificate renewal system, which will not be available to all solicitors until the new year.
He said he understood that the delays were “very disruptive” to the profession. The reason why the system was being phased in was not because it was “sub-standard” but rather that the SRA wanted to be certain “the infrastructure can cope with the totality of the volumes”.
Feedback from firms involved in piloting the system had been “very positive”, Mr Townsend reported. Firms said they could “do the work considerably quicker”. In the long run, he predicted, the profession would enjoy significant costs savings with the new system.
In a report to the board, he said mySRA activations had reached more than 98,000 by 21 November. Calls to the SRA for advice on the accounts had dropped from 500 per day to around 300 per day. Most related to forgotten passwords or activation e-mails not being received.