The new regulatory rules governing solicitors in the UK has seen sexual harassment and money laundering infringements with other measures made more robust by the new regulations, while also easing the way for lawyers to work individually.
The oversight of solicitors has been introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), coming into force in September and reducing ‘core principles’ from 10 to seven but focused on promoting a culture of strong ethical values.
Sexual harassment is to be regarded as serious misconduct alongside ‘abuse of trust, taking unfair advantage of clients or others, and the misuse of client money; dishonesty and criminal behaviour’.
The strategy also emphasises ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ as key factors in lawyers’ behaviour.
The new strategy makes the firm culture a key factor in determining whether an offence has occurred – including the alpha male-type behaviour and the aggression taken toweards fee charging.
These are now important aspects to be considered when the SRA considers charges or offending behaviour under the regulations.
The SRA strategy says: ‘We see certain types of allegations as inherently more serious than others: for example, we will always take seriously allegations of abuse of trust, taking unfair advantage of clients or others, and the misuse of client money; as we will sexual and violent misconduct, dishonesty and criminal behaviour.’
The regulator has also condensed and simplified its list of principles, as well as stipulating an emphasis on for the first time.
There have also been important changes to reporting obligations have that make it necessary to report any alleged misconduct to the SRA even before any internal investigation has been concluded by the firm, but also if misconduct is only suspected and no investigation has yet been launched.
One of the key changes also focuses on access to justice issues, permitting solicitors to practise from unregulated organisations and to operate as freelancers.
The so-called ‘Uberisation of law’ has had a mixed reception, with lawyers raising concerns about working with unregulated entities and complications of gaining insurance cover.
Under the new rules, such ‘freelance’ lawyers would not be able to hold client money or employ staff, but would be able to provide reserved legal activities to the public.
The new rules will create some added interest, if not angst, for law firms facing increased scrutiny over their culture and processes when it comes to handling money and, in particular, staff.