Dealing with SRA complaints, failures, and mistakes as a junior solicitor
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is the professional regulatory body for solicitors and makes up part of the wider regulatory framework for the legal profession. The SRA publishes the Standards and Regulations handbook which details the rules and codes of conduct that regulated solicitors and all employees of regulated firms must follow to provide legal services to the general public.
What the SRA does
Part of the SRA’s role is to investigate allegations and complaints of misconduct against solicitors and those they employ. These complaints can come from clients or other solicitors, and they can also be self-reports. Any complaint the SRA receives is investigated and actions can be taken based on the outcome of the investigation.
Every individual who is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority has an obligation to report misconduct as soon as they see it. Failure to report misconduct is seen as misconduct in itself and will be investigated and met with sanctions if proven.
If the investigation uncovers a serious breach where the SRA’s powers of sanction are insufficient, the case can be referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for prosecution. Cases can also be referred to the SDT if the solicitor or other regulated individual denies the alleged breach.
The SRA also deals with admission to the roll of solicitors and the issuing of practice certificates with conditions imposed.
What sanctions can the SRA impose?
If an investigation conducted by the SRA uncovers a breach of conduct, it has the power to impose sanctions on those that it regulates. Breaches of the SRA Standards and Regulations cannot result in custodial sentences and imposed sanctions can only affect your professional life and legal practice.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority can impose the following sanctions:
- Take no action;
- Issue a warning or a letter of advice;
- Issue a rebuke;
- Impose a fine of up to £2000;
- Impose conditions on practising certificates;
- Intervene in the operation of the legal practice;
- Issue an s.43 order.
If there is a finding of no case to answer, or the breach was not found to be serious enough, the SRA may choose to take no action at all. Alternatively, it may choose to issue a warning or a letter of advice serving as a reminder of the professional’s obligations to the regulator and profession. This warning will be kept on file and looked at should any further allegations be investigated.
For any breach serious enough to warrant sanctions more severe than a warning, details will be published by the SRA unless you are able to prove it would not be in the public interest to do so. These more serious sanctions range from a rebuke (a permanent caution on your record) or fine of up to £2000, to conditions on practising certificates that limit the work you are able to undertake as a solicitor. If there are serious breaches at a legal practice, the SRA can stage an intervention and close it down if necessary. An s.43 order may be issued to non-solicitor’s regulated by the SRA (secretaries, paralegals, trainee solicitors, accounts clerks, professionals regulated by other regulatory bodies) which requires they are granted permission from the SRA before engaging in employment with any other legal firm of body.
Referral to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal
For misconduct which the SRA deems so severe that their powers of sanction are insufficient, they may refer the matter to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The SDT has the power to:
- Impose an unlimited fine;
- Impose restrictions on legal practice;
- Suspend for a definite or indefinite period;
- Strike members off of the roll of solicitors;
- Issue an s.43 order.
If you are suspended by the SDT for an indefinite period, you must make an application to be able to resume work as a solicitor.
Negligence vs misconduct
Regulatory action by the SRA is sometimes the subject of much professional debate, with many arguing that the SRA fails to take into account toxic work environments and intense workloads and pressure particularly on junior solicitors in investigations of misconduct.
In well-known SRA cases, it is often not the original mistake that results in a sanction, but the failure to report the mistake as early as possible, or taking actions to cover up the original mistake. The SRA’s role as a regulator is not to punish legal professionals for honest mistakes, but to ensure that individuals operate with integrity and in the best interests of their clients.
As with any professionals, honest mistakes will occur and it’s important to remember that the SRA will not sanction you for such failures. Any such mistakes should be reported to your manager, as there is often a way of resolving the situation without breaching the codes of ethics.
Whilst it’s important to be aware of your obligations as a legal professional, if you conduct your personal and professional life in a manner that does not breach the SRA Standards and Regulations and report mistakes appropriately, you should not run into any problems.
The rulings in the following case law give an insight into what the SRA looks for when investigating misconduct and how it distinguishes between negligence and misconduct.
Bolton v The Law Society  1 WLR 512 – Sir Thomas Bingham MR
“Any solicitor who is shown to have discharged his professional duties with anything less than complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness must expect severe sanctions …..”
Sanctions are imposed to “maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession as one in which every member, of whatever standing, may be trusted to the ends of the earth”
Wingate and Evans v SRA  EWCA Civ 366 – Jackson LJ
“The duty of integrity does not require professional people to be paragons of virtue.”
“it is important not to characterise run of the mill professional negligence as manifest incompetence. All professional people are human and will from time to time make slips which a court would characterise as negligent.”
Protecting yourself as a junior solicitor
As a solicitor, there are many things you can do in your daily professional life to protect yourself against SRA investigations and sanctions.
Firstly, always backing up pertinent advice to clients in writing, ideally in the form of letters or emails, to create a consistent record of communication that can be referred back to should any investigation arise. Similarly, keeping detailed attendance notes will act as a shield against allegations of misconduct.
Whilst it can be difficult as a junior solicitor, it is important to never do anything you are not comfortable doing or know is in breach of the Standards and Regulations. This includes not reporting misconduct as soon as you notice it. It is important to remember that taking on work you are not qualified to undertake is a breach of the Regulations.
Keeping a professional relationship with clients and other solicitors is imperative in protecting yourself. Never do anything that a client is asking you to do that you know is breaching the SRA standards and regulations, and do not have communications with other solicitors that you would not want to be aired in an open setting. This is especially important to remember as other solicitors have the obligation to report any misconduct they suspect.
You should also remember to maintain a healthy work-life balance. The pressure on junior solicitors along with workload can be immense, leading to an increase in mistakes and poor decision making. Unlike other Regulators, there is no fitness to practice regime in place for solicitors if misconduct has occurred, which is why it is important to look after your mental health when practising as a solicitor.
There are lots of materials you can access to improve your knowledge regarding the SRA and how to avoid mistakes.
You should read and know the SRA Standards and Regulations, particularly the warning notes and guidance around the areas relevant to you. Similarly, reading Law Society Practice Notes specifically about your area will ensure you are well informed around potential misconduct.
You can subscribe to newsletters about regulation such as the Lawyers Defence Group will mean you are informed of any changes or new regulations, as well as reading legal publications like the Law Society Gazette, The Lawyer, Legal Futures, and Roll on a Friday to get an idea of what’s happening in terms of misconduct and how to avoid similar situations.
If you have any concerns around misconduct it is important you seek help to resolve the situation as soon as possible.
Voicing your concerns to colleagues, friends or family members can be an important way of relieving some of the pressure you find yourself under, but do bear in mind that colleagues and managers have an obligation to report anything you disclose which they believe to constitute misconduct and family or friends may not understand the scope of the rules and regulations. By reporting any misconduct to your Compliance Officer (COLP), you have fulfilled your personal reporting obligation.
If you require advice, you may choose to seek a Professional Discipline Lawyer such as an SRA Solicitor, the Law Society Practice Advice Service, or the Solicitors Assistance Scheme which provides an hour of free legal advice to those who need it. All three of these services will provide you with confidential advice which is best sought as soon as an issue arises.
As well as the options mentioned above, you can also speak to your local Law Society and local JLD which are made up of individuals who will want to help you with any issues as best as they can.