Solicitors are often called on to deal with media enquiries. From commenting on a particular development of law to acting as a media representative of a client and their family, dealing with the press is part and parcel of working in the law.
However, as with everything in the legal profession, rules and ethics apply to how a solicitor speaks to the media, especially if it is on behalf of a client. Earlier this month, the Law Society Gazette reported that Dino Novicelli, of London firm Bolt Burdon Kemp was fined and rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) after he wrongly disclosed documents to a journalist.
Mr Novicelli was given permission by his client to speak to a reporter about his case, which related to historical sexual abuse. According to the SRA, he presented a document to the reporter that had been disclosed to him under the pre-action disclosure protocol. The newspaper then mentioned the document in general terms in its final published article.
Upon seeing the news report, the Respondents asked Mr Novicelli for an explanation, as they knew the information could only have come from the disclosed document. The Respondents suspected Mr Novicelli had breached Civil procedure Rule 31.22.
Mr Novicelli apologised for showing the document and admitted he had erred in doing so.
The SRA stated that Mr Novicelli’s conduct could have caused significant loss and inconvenience to another and fined him £2,000; the maximum amount the regulator can fine without referring the matter to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. Mitigating factors such as the fact there were no negative consequences for any of the parties, that Mr Novicelli did not benefit from his actions, and the fact he mistakenly believed he was able to disclose the document to the journalist were taken into account.
Tips for Solicitors dealing With the Media
When dealing with the media, solicitors are expected to act in accordance with the SRA Code of Conduct. This includes acting with integrity and in your client’s best interests. You must also act in a way that preserves public trust in your services and the legal profession as a whole and beware of any conflicts of interest.
If a reporter phones your office asking for a comment on a particular issue that is in the news, it is likely they are on a deadline and just need a quick soundbite. Don’t feel you need to answer immediately and always ask the reporter to email the question to you to avoid any miscommunication. If the reporter wishes you to discuss your client, obviously, you need to gain the client’s permission to speak to the media.
If you are being asked questions that you cannot answer, don’t say ‘no comment’, instead, be general and stick to your message (if you are in doubt about how to do this, just watch any interview with a politician). Do not repeat any negative facts, never lie, and don’t go ‘off the record’.
Solicitors and social media
Social media allows people to comment on various issues on a public forum. Unfortunately, firing off a comment without thinking can lead to reputational damage, not only to the solicitor and their firm, but the legal profession as a whole. In an effort to deal with this, in August 2017, the SRA issued a warning notice on offensive communications. It stated the regulatory body had seen an increase in the number of complaints concerning “inappropriate communications, specifically (but not limited to) in relation to emails and the use of social media, both inside and outside of practice”. Examples included making offensive or prejudiced remarks relating to a person’s race or sex, victimising and/or harassing someone, and using threatening language.
The SRA then set out expectations of solicitors when communicating with clients and on inter-office emails. It stated that failure to act in accordance with the Warning Notice could lead to disciplinary action.
Whether dealing with reporters, commenting on social media, or communicating through email, solicitors have a duty to ensure they act in accordance with the SRA’s Code of Conduct. It can be too easy to fire off a quick statement to a reporter without considering the context in which your words may be taken or email a client or fellow solicitor using language which may be taken as aggressive or inappropriate. When it comes to the media and electronic communications, taking a few moments to think before hitting send can mitigate the risk of disciplinary action.
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