News release

Question of Trust - views from the public and solicitors renew SRA mandate

Initial findings show that the public and profession agree that dishonesty and misuse of client money are the most serious offences for a solicitor, yet the public view the issue of information security and competence more seriously than lawyers do.

The largest research of its type in the sector, our Question of Trust campaign saw 5,400 members of the public and profession share their views on what should happen when solicitors get things wrong. The campaign used scenarios based on real-life cases to ask how serious the issues were and what action should be taken.

Crispin Passmore, our Executive Director of Policy, today presented some of the initial findings from the research to a 150-strong audience at our 'Trust and the market: rethinking regulation' event in London. The results showed that the most serious offences all related to issues of misuse of client money, criminal activities and/or dishonesty, such as a solicitor using client money to pay gambling debts, forging documents, or getting an elderly client to alter a will so the solicitor could inherit some money.

Although both the public and profession see the misuse of money as very serious, the public were more sympathetic than solicitors if the money is replaced. There were two other main areas where the results showed a clear difference in views between the public and solicitors.

Questions relating to risks around client confidentiality - for example through "shoulder surfing" or losing client files - were on average viewed as more serious by the public. Similarly issues linked to a solicitor's competence - such as a solicitor providing poor advice without fully understanding the relevant law - were also viewed as more serious by the public.

The survey results were not as conclusive around issues that related to behaviour outside a solicitor's working life - such as getting involved in a drunken fight, fare-dodging, being found guilty of dangerous driving, or using racist language on a personal blog. There was no clear consensus on how seriously a regulator should treat such matters.

Crispin Passmore said: "Trust in the profession is critical. And the overwhelming majority of solicitors maintain that trust through adhering to the high professional standards that we set. That means we can be confident that reducing bureaucracy and making it easier for law firms to grow and innovate is the right way forward.

"Yet where solicitors fall short of these standards, it is our role to step in and make sure the public are protected. These initial results show that we are taking the right things seriously; things like dishonesty, misuse of client money, or evidence of clear intent to do wrong, are all areas that matter to us, the public and the profession. I am pleased that the public and the profession have supported our approach and renewed our mandate to act.

"Other areas are more nuanced. We are considering the findings and are using them to refine our approach to judging the seriousness of offences and what action we might take. We will publish that approach - grounded in the firm evidence of the views of the public and profession - so we can be transparent about our decision making. This should further increase public and professional confidence."

The findings also show that deliberate offences are seen as more serious than instances where there was a failure to be aware of the rules or no intent. And harm was also linked to seriousness - the more harm caused the more serious respondents felt the behaviour was. The full findings will be published later this year.

Scenarios rated 'most serious'

Respondents to the survey could judge scenarios on a scale of seriousness, with four scenarios rated in the 'most serious' category. These were seen as incompatible with being a solicitor and could result in a solicitor being struck off.

  • A senior solicitor in a law firm uses money that belongs to clients to pay his gambling debts. He says he always intended to pay the money back when his luck changed
  • A solicitor is convicted of providing forged documents to help someone unlawfully enter the UK
  • A solicitor encourages an elderly client to alter his will so that she will inherit some of his money
  • A solicitor uses money that belongs to clients, not the law firm itself, to solve cash-flow problems in his firm

Other scenarios that were rated 'very serious' also had a similar themes of dishonesty, misuse of client money or involvement in criminality.

 

Note to editors

1.We are the regulator of solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, protecting consumers and supporting the rule of law and the administration of justice. We do this by overseeing all education and training requirements necessary to practise as a solicitor, licensing individuals and firms to practise, setting the standards of the profession and regulating and enforcing compliance against these standards.

2.The Question of Trust campaign ran from July 2015 to January 2016. Of those respondents who identified their background, there was broadly an even split between solicitors and the public completing the survey.

3. Respondents had the option of choosing a scale of one to six to rank the seriousness for an issue:

  • a matter of no concern: that should not lead to action
  • a matter of some concern: which could easily be put right, for example through discussion between us and the solicitor or firm concerned
  • a matter of concern: which should be acknowledged, for example through a rebuke or warning
  • a serious matter: which could lead to restrictions on the solicitor’s practising certificate or a sanction such as a fine
  • a very serious matter: which could result in a serious sanction such as a suspension or a large fine
  • the most serious matters: which are incompatible with practise as a solicitor and could result in a solicitor being struck off

4. Issues of solicitors competence are seen as more serious to the public and the profession. In five scenarios, the public generally saw these type of issues as 'a serious matter' that could lead to a sanction on a practising certificate or fine, whereas the profession were more likely to see as a matter of concern which may require a rebuke or warning.

5. Information security issues are also seen as more serious to the public than the profession. In five scenarios, on average the public saw these issues as a 'serious matter', whereas the profession on average saw them as in between a serious matter and matter of concern.

6. Contact our press office on:

  • 0121 329 6784 (office hours)
  • 07805 581 205 (out of office hours)
  • media@sra.org.uk