Being subject to a Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) investigation is certain to be a stressful experience for any firm. If you are a managing partner who suddenly finds their law firm being investigated by the SRA, the more knowledge you have about the regulatory body’s decision-making process, the better.
A law firm can be investigated by the SRA if there is a report of misconduct or financial strife, resulting either from a complaint from the public or the firm conducting its own self-assessment and making a report to the body.
The SRA’s obligations
The SRA is responsible for regulating all law firms for the public interest. In addition, the regulatory body has a duty to carry out the objectives set out in section 1 of the Legal Services Act.
The overarching obligations of the SRA include:
• protecting the public interest
• promoting and supporting the rule of law
• improving access to justice
• protecting and promoting the interests of legal clients
• ensuring there is competition in the delivery of legal services
• increasing the general publics’ knowledge of their legal rights and obligations
• encouraging an independent, strong, diverse, and effective legal profession
• promoting and maintaining adherence to the professional principles, namely that authorised persons should act with independence and integrity, maintain proper standards of work, act in the best interests of clients, in exercising rights of audience or conducting litigation should comply with the duty to the court to act with independence in the interests of justice, and to keep affairs of clients confidential .
The principles of SRA decision-making
The SRA sets out its principles of good decision-making. One of the main duties of an advocate for a firm which is under investigation is to ensure these principles are followed.
The principles are:
Fairness – one of the reasons the SRA chooses to publish its decision-making process is that it must not only act fairly but be seen to act fairly. The body must follow the principles of natural justice and those set out in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Decision-making must be proportional, balancing the public interests with the individual or the firm being investigated. There should also be Equality of Arms, as in the firm or individual should be provided with enough information to present put together a defence. In some cases the SRA may be unable to disclose sensitive information; however, an experienced solicitors’ advocate knows these situations are exceptional and will demand the SRA robustly justify their reasons for non-disclosure.
SRA decisions must also be impartial, free from any bias or perception of bias. Decision-makers must declare any conflict of interest and remove themselves from cases in which they have any personal relationship or a financial or other interest.
Evidence must also be gathered according to self-published guidelines. SRA investigators have the power to examine all documents, even those subject to solicitor-client privilege. If full co-operation is not provided by the firm, it may be closed down. Your advocate will closely supervise the evidence gathering procedures of SRA investigators, ensuring they follow the correct procedures.
Finally, the SRA must always provide a right of appeal to firms it investigates.
Transparency – the SRA commits itself to being fully transparent in its decision-making. If sanctions or restrictions are imposed on a firm or an individual, the SRA publishes their decision and the reasons by which it was reached.
Authorised decision-makers – the SRA has a Schedule of Delegation which provides a list of authorised decision-makers. The body also defines the technical and behavioural competencies that are required to make decisions at particular levels and ensure all decision-makers are trained and competent for the role.
Quality assurance and monitoring – all decisions and the reasons for making them are subject to internal auditing to check for fairness, transparency, and consistency. Solicitor advocates keep a close eye on all decisions that are made by the SRA and argue strongly in favour of clients if the body fails to abide by its own standards.
The SRA has a broad range of powers at its disposal. Therefore, it is imperative that those subject to an investigation instruct an experienced solicitors’ advocate. They will ensure any decisions made by the body are in line with their decision-making principles.
We have been helping legal professionals with professional disciplinary and regulatory hearings for over 20 years. If you have any questions relating SRA investigations and/or the body’s decision-making process, please call us on 0151 909 2380. Or complete the Free Online Enquiry and I will soon be in touch.