Few things cause the manager of a law firm more stress and anxiety than news that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is conducting an investigation into your practice. If you have an understanding of the process however, along with properly organised files & accounts and the aid of professional support in the event that an interview is requested, an SRA investigation can be dealt with in a calm, pragmatic manner.
The SRA investigation procedure
Naturally, little notice is given prior to an SRA investigation; seven to fourteen days is the most a firm will receive. If the SRA believes a firm may destroy vital evidence, abscond, influence witnesses or prejudice or frustrate the investigation in some other way then they may turn up unannounced.
A reason for the inspection is generally provided in the notification but not always. The SRA also makes it clear in its guidance that it will not waste time discussing or debating the reason for the investigation, so your best course of action is to accept the situation and cooperate fully. In any event, the investigation can extend beyond the reasons provided in the notification.
The investigating officer will normally start by interviewing senior management and partners, referencing back to pre-inspection questionnaires that may have been sent out with the notification. During the interview, the inspector will also establish the management structure of the firm and its general compliance practices.
Once the interview is complete, the main accounts, bank statements, insurance policies etc are usually inspected, along with certain compliance documents such as the anti-money laundering and data protection policies. Client files are only inspected if they relate to the investigation. Documents are inspected on-site, although copies may be requested.
Failure to produce certain documents is a breach of Rule 31 of the SRA Accounts Rules 2011 and Principle 7 of the SRA Principles 2011, which requires firms and individuals to cooperate with the SRA.
One of the most stressful elements of an SRA investigation is collating the required documents for inspection. Whether or not you have an accreditation such as Lexcel or ISO, it is good practice to model their framework for creating policies and procedures that the entire firm follows and understands. By doing so, not only will your day-to-day operation run smoother, if an SRA inspection does take place, even unannounced, you will find the process far less demanding as all of your documentation will be in order and easily accessible.
How long does an investigation last?
Depending on the reason for the investigation, the firm’s cooperation and the accessibility of the files, an SRA inspection can be over in a day or in some circumstances may last for many months.
Further interviews with management and senior partners may be requested if the inspecting officer finds reasons for concern. If this occurs, it is strongly advised that you instruct a legal representative experienced in managing SRA inspections to attend the interview with you. The session may be recorded and you will be asked to comment on the irregularities discovered and perhaps encouraged to admit guilt. Anything you say in this interview may be used as evidence if and when the SRA exerts any disciplinary measures against the firm and its management.
Survival Tips for an SRA investigation
- Make sure your accounts and compliance procedures are kept up to date and in order
- Cooperate fully with the SRA inspector and tell the truth. Any fabrications will be uncovered and likely lead to harsher penalties
- If you are asked to attend an interview at the end of the inspection, ask the inspector to clarify the areas of concern they found to avoid being surprised by an unexpected revelation
- Ensure you have legal representation at your side during an interview if irregularities have been discovered
- If you are given notice of an inspection, seek professional legal advice before the SRA officer arrives, on how best to proceed and collate the documents that are likely to be inspected
With proper advice and planning, an SRA investigation need not be overly stressful. By telling the truth, cooperating fully and knowing what to expect, the investigation will proceed smoothly, finish quickly and provide a positive learning experience for your management team.
I have been helping legal professionals with professional disciplinary and regulatory hearings for over 20 years. If you have any questions relating to an SRA investigation, please call me on 0151 909 2380 or complete a Free Online Enquiry and I will soon be in touch.