The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has moved quickly to remind in-house solicitor teams of their responsibilities when it comes to publicity.
Media reports have involved complaints from the public about misleading information contained in letters and letterheads sent out by a small number of in-house solicitors. The materials used have given the impression through the wording used or the use of business names that the in-house team is an independent firm of solicitors or other legal services firm.
The Authority has therefore produced a Warning Notice reiterating the key parts of Chapter 8 of the Code of Conduct, which deals with publicity. The Code of Conduct says all solicitors must act with integrity and maintain the trust the public places in them and in the provision of legal services. The SRA expects all publicity and information regarding to be compliant.
Richard Collins, SRA Executive Director, said: "There have been a number of complaints from members of the public that have arisen from in-house solicitors giving the impression that an external agency or firm has been instructed to take legal action, up to and including, court proceedings. We have reviewed a number of complaints and a range of letters sent by solicitors employed within financial and similar institutions to pursue debts.
"We believe attempts are being made to mislead third parties—invariably individual debtors—that their case has been referred to an independent law firm to pursue the debt, when in fact it is the in-house legal team. We believe such approaches do not meet the requirements of the Code of Conduct."
The complaints have arisen most commonly in debt collection or enforcement matters where solicitors are employed in-house by the organisation seeking to recover the debt. Further concern has been caused by complaints of the solicitors taking unfair advantage of a third party's lack of legal knowledge, particularly in debt collecting matters, where the third party is unrepresented.
Richard Collins added: "Overall, the obligation on solicitors is to take positive steps to ensure third parties are clear about their status and relationship with the organisation seeking recovery of the debt. Failure to comply with this warning notice will lead to regulatory action."
In considering any complaints or regulatory action, the SRA will consider whether the Principles are being complied with and Outcomes being met, the overall impact on the third party of information, and especially the totality of the information provided makes the solicitor's status clear or whether it gives a false impression and may mislead. Sanctions available to the SRA range from warning letters through to fines of up to £2,000. Any misconduct that warrants greater punishment will be referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The warning notice can be found here:
Go to the warning notice