New SRA Workplace Environment Guidance

In recent years, there have been numerous cases and reports of law practitioners in the UK who have experienced toxic workplaces, bullying, harassment, intimidation, and pressure to work excessive hours. Back in 2020, Tiernan Brady, the global director of inclusion at Clifford Chance, speaking at the Thomson Reuters “Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law” webinar, made the point that if the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules required for problems to be reported ‘to the top’ it risks creating a “wall of silence”. He also said that workplace bullying is often subtle and takes place in “unhealthy environments” and that “predatory and professional bullies are very incremental and clever in the way they behave – how they chip away and destroy someone…The moment when someone breaks could be after the fortieth small thing that happens”. Fast forward to February 2022, and the SRA has now issued brand new workplace environment guidance on the risks of failing to protect and support colleagues and, amongst other things, has placed a requirement on law firms to provide a ‘safe environment’ for staff to raise concerns. This follows a number of high-profile cases whereby junior members of staff have found themselves facing prosecution for hiding mistakes, with several saying they did this because of workplace pressure and a culture of fear of coming forward with concerns.

The new SRA Workplace Environment Guidance

As the SRA explains in the guidance, they have received several complaints that some firms have an “unsupportive, bullying or toxic working environment and culture”. The new SRA ‘Safe Environment’ guidance is for regulated law firms and places an onus on senior leadership and managers to look after the wellbeing of staff members. Specifically, it lays out a clear set of ‘safe environment’ standards for law firms and is aimed at those in positions of responsibility for an organisation’s culture and systems.

The SRA’s guidance states that all firms need to do everything possible to:

  • look after their staff’s workplace wellbeing in the workplace
  • protect staff from bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation
  • support staff so they can work safely and effectively

To meet these requirements and to ensure a safe environment, the SRA wants employers to:

  • implement effective systems, processes, and controls to supervise staff, and monitor concerns regarding their wellbeing and competence
  • provide a safe environment for employees to raise concerns
  • ensure that concerns that are raised are promptly addressed in a constructive manner
  • understand that in some cases, poor performance of a member of staff may be a warning sign that they are under stress or duress
  • treat all staff with dignity and respect to create an ethical workplace and engaged employees that create a better client experience
  • put in place clear and current policies on bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation
  • put in place disciplinary procedures for any breach of the above policies

As the SRA makes clear, failure to provide a safe environment of the type they outline may lead to future breaches of legislation, including those related to equality, employment law, and health and safety legislation. They also recommend that, where possible, issues raised by members of staff should be handled within the employer’s HR policies and procedures in the first instance. If this does not prove effective, such matters should be referred to the Employment Tribunal.

Creating a ‘safe environment’ and the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms

The guidance also reminds law firms that a failure to create a safe environment may be a breach of the SRAs Code of Conduct for Firms (the Code). This is because paragraph 2 of the Code places an onus on law firms to make sure they have effective governance structures, arrangements, systems and controls to ensure compliance with the SRA’s regulatory requirements; these are required to “create and maintain the right culture and environment for the delivery of competent and ethical legal services to clients”.

As the new guidance explains, “A failure by firms to put in place and effectively implement systems to support and protect staff will increase the risk that individuals or firms breach one or more of our other regulatory requirements”.

Furthermore, the new guidance reminds firms of their supervisory duty under paragraph 4 of the Code to check services are being delivered to clients in a competent and timely manner. This requires that staff (including managers) are competent and have an up-to-date understanding of their legal, ethical and regulatory obligations. The SRA view effective supervision as important in the context of creating a safe environment because supervised and supported staff are much more likely to come forward and disclose mistakes.

Final words

It is now more important than ever for law firms to invest the time, money, and resources into creating a safe environment for all staff members. The requirement to do so is core to the SRA’s requirements, and any failure to take complaints of bullying or victimisation seriously can lead to regulatory and enforcement action by the SRA.

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