Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Lawyers
What is the SRA?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is the regulator for solicitors and the majority of law firms in England and Wales. They act in the public interest to set, promote and secure high standards of behaviour and professional performance. In essence, the SRA is tasked with ensuring that solicitors’ clients receive a good standard of service whilst making sure that the rule of law is upheld.
The SRA operates on an outcome –focused approach, designed to give solicitors flexibility when deciding on the best way to deliver their services. They take a risk –based stance on enforcement action which they believe allows them to be both targeted and proportionate. If non-compliance results in a risk to the public or clients, or if the SRA feel that a solicitor or firm have failed to co-operate effectively with the regulator, they may take enforcement action, which in the most serious cases can result in practice intervention; disciplinary action or even removal from the profession.
Why choose Olliers for SRA investigations?
The team at Olliers is made up of experienced regulatory and criminal lawyers who are on hand to provide advice and assistance to legal professionals facing investigation or proceedings brought by the SRA.
Our professional discipline experts have dealt with the full spectrum of cases, from breaches of Money Laundering Regulations to practice management issues through to serious misuse of client account funds and breaches of the SRA accounts rules. We are able to provide expert representation for solicitors and law firms throughout the course of their dealings with the SRA, advising at all stages of the process, from initial referral and investigation to hearings before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
As fellow professionals, we understand the stress that an investigation and/or proceedings can cause. We also appreciate the potentially far –reaching consequences for your practice, your professional and personal reputation, as well as, the impact such matters can have on colleagues, staff and family.
We work closely with our clients and take a pro-active approach, where appropriate, when it comes to drafting responses to requests for information and/or making representations, as necessary, to ensure your practice can continue.
This approach means that we have earned a reputation for meticulous preparation, sound advice and excellent results for those we represent. Therefore, if you are subject to SRA/SDT proceedings or find yourself under investigation by the police, please get in touch and we will be more than happy to discuss your specific needs.
What types of cases can Olliers assist with?
The team at Olliers focuses purely on defence work, whether in the regulatory or criminal sector. Our combined experience of both sectors allows us to take a holistic approach to the cases we deal with and we have assisted many professionals, not only legal but also medical professionals including doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists, as well as, teachers, accountants and police officers, amongst others.
We have assisted with a wide range of regulatory matters and associated criminal proceedings.
Our experience includes:
- Providing expert advice during the course of regulatory investigations
- Attendance at meetings with the regulator and other interested parties
- Preparation of responses to requests from the regulator
- Representation at Interim Orders Tribunal hearings
- Representation at hearings before the SDT and other fitness to practise tribunals
- Applications for restoration to the register/roll following erasure
- Criminal investigations including representation at PACE interviews
- Providing advice and representation for inquest proceedings
What can I expect following a referral to the SRA?
The SRA may receive complaints about a solicitor or firm from a number of sources, including clients of the solicitor/firm, members of the public, members of the profession, the courts or other regulators. Not all complaints will give rise to an investigation or proceedings.
As noted previously, the SRA adopts a risk-based approach, therefore, on receipt of a complaint or concern, they will consider the information provided against a three stage test, known as the “Assessment Threshold Test”. This allows the SRA to focus on misconduct most likely to harm the public whilst at the same time ensuring that any decision to investigate is proportionate, as well as, consistent.
The three stage test includes:
- Based on the allegations made, has there been a potential breach of the SRA’s standards or requirements?
- If so, is the breach sufficiently serious that, if proved, some form of regulatory action may be taken?
- Is the alleged breach provable?
So far as seriousness is concerned, as referenced at stage (ii), some matters will be immediately obviously serious by their very nature but this is not always the case as some may be serious because they indicate a pattern of behaviour or persistent failure to comply. As such the SRA will consider all of the information they hold for an individual/firm and will also consider any identifiable aggravating and mitigating features to ensure the right decision is made.
It is worth noting that cases which relate solely to poor service tend to be directed to the Legal Ombudsman and the SRA will not investigate them any further unless there is information which also indicates a serious breach or in the event that the Legal Ombudsman has already investigated and found evidence of more serious issues which ought to be looked at by the SRA.
In terms of whether or not the alleged breach is capable of being proved, the SRA will not only consider any evidence presented to them with the complaint but will consider what further evidence they may be able to collate including from the complainant, the individual, the firm or any third party.
If the answer to any of the above three questions is no, the complaint or report will not be investigated further unless there is insufficient information available to decide if any of the stages have been met in which case the SRA may carry out some initial investigation work in order to make an informed decision about how to deal with the matter
What happens if the SRA decides to investigate?
For those cases that meet the threshold for investigation, the SRA will normally contact the individual or firm to notify them of the investigation and the nature of the allegations. This should be done as soon as possible and in cases where it is not appropriate to notify the solicitor/firm due to public interest considerations, that decision will be kept under review and the individual/firm, notified as soon as the SRA feels able to do so.
What does the SRA investigation involve?
The majority of SRA investigations are desk-based and as with other regulatory investigations, the SRA will collate evidence from a number of sources to help inform the decision about what, if any, action they need to take. This will ordinarily include taking statements from the complainant but may also include speaking to colleagues of those involved or requesting documentary evidence from the solicitor or the firm.
It is worth highlighting the fact that the SRA has considerable powers when it comes to an investigation. There is an expectation on those they regulate to co-operate and they are permitted to view all material they deem relevant including that which may be confidential or subject to the client’s legal professional privilege.
The SRA can compel a solicitor to attend an interview in order to provide an explanation in respect of any information or documentation relevant to the complaint. They can also ask the High Court to order third parties who they do not regulate, to provide information and documentation. These are perhaps points which further emphasise the importance of obtaining appropriate legal advice and assistance as soon as possible.
There are, of course, situations when the SRA will conduct on-site inspections, for example where time is of the essence and they need to take urgent protective action such as intervention or restricting a solicitor’s ability to practice. It may simply be more practical on occasion, for example, where there is a significant amount of material to review or electronic data to be considered.
The investigation stage can take time and although the SRA aims to conclude over 90% of its investigations within 12 months, this is not always possible.
Having conducted their investigation and collated the relevant information, the SRA will normally write to the solicitor (“Rule 2.3 notice”- SRA Regulatory and Disciplinary Procedure Rules), setting out the allegations along with the evidence gathered in respect of the same. They will also tend to summarise any relevant regulatory history for the solicitor and any associated persons. Perhaps most significantly, they will, where appropriate, set out the recommendation(s) they intends to make in respect of the outcome.
Solicitors will be given at least 14 days to respond and we would strongly urge anyone who receives a Rule 2.3 notice to get in touch. Our lawyers have considerable experience in drafting responses and appropriate submissions at this stage of the process. This is an opportunity to provide both context and your version of events and in some cases this can lead to matters being concluded without any further action.
When the SRA have collated all of the information including any written representations from the solicitor, a decision will be taken as to what, if any, action needs to be taken. One of the following decisions will usually follow:
(i) Issue a rebuke– intended to sanction the regulated person where a breach has occurred but the issues are considered to be of moderate seriousness and therefore do not warrant a more severe response in order to uphold standards or maintain public confidence in the profession.
(ii) Impose conditions– such that the risk of harm arising from a repetition of any breach is controlled. This may include restricting or preventing certain activities, undertaking specific training or subjecting the registrant to closer monitoring or reporting.
(iii) Financial penalty– a deterrent sanction to reflect the seriousness of the breach but where protection of the public and/or public confidence in the profession does not necessitate suspension or striking off.
(iv) Suspension– imposed by the SDT, to protect the public and/or public interest in cases which fall short of striking off. The length of any suspension should reflect the seriousness of the breach, as well as, the time needed for the solicitor to remediate.
(v) Striking off- imposed by the SDT as a deterrent sanction in cases involving the most serious misconduct. As well as a deterrent, striking off is seen as a means of protecting the public and public confidence in the profession.
(vi) Suspension or revocation of the firm’s authorisation– imposed for serious breaches of the SRA standards/requirements to act as both a deterrent and reassurance for the public that such matters have serious consequences for those involved.
It is, of course, open to the SRA to close any matter with no further action once the solicitors has been served with the Rule 2.3 notice. In such cases, the SRA may still issue a letter of advice or an advice letter with a warning regarding future conduct or behaviour.
What is the SDT?
In serious cases where there is both a realistic prospect of an order being made in respect of the allegations and if it is in the public interest to do so, the SRA may make an application to refer a case to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for further consideration. These tend to be the most serious matters where suspension or striking off have been recommended as only the SDT can formally impose the same.
The Tribunal adjudicates upon alleged breaches of the rules and regulations applicable to solicitors and firms. They also deal with cases involving alleged misconduct by registered foreign lawyers and decide applications for restoration by former solicitors and also applications in relation to indefinite suspensions. The Tribunal can also make orders in respect of costs payable and issue unlimited fines. The Tribunal members make the decisions and they are completely independent from the SRA. Their decisions are, however, subject to a right of appeal to the High Court.
Even when the SRA has made an application for a case to be considered by the SDT, it does not mean that the matter will proceed to a full hearing before the SDT; it may still be possible to deal with the case by way of an agreed outcome.
As is perhaps indicated in the title, this requires a solicitor to not only make admissions in respect of the breach(es), but also to agree to the sanction proposed by the SRA. The terms of any agreed outcome must be realistic as they require the approval of the SDT, but if endorsed they may reduce the time and costs of a case and also provide much needed certainty for those involved.
If your case has been referred to the SDT, we strongly recommend that you seek independent legal advice from our specialist regulatory lawyers.
Olliers SRA experience
The team at Olliers are defence experts with many years’ experience in both criminal and regulatory matters. Our reputation for providing pragmatic advice and an understanding ear means that we have dealt with professionals from all walks of life including fellow lawyers. We have assisted those facing the full spectrum of allegations including but not limited to :
- Criminal convictions/allegations
- Dishonesty allegations
- Misuse of drugs or alcohol
Funding for SRA cases
Olliers are able to assist you on either an hourly rate basis or in most cases we can offer a ‘fixed fee’ service to provide peace of mind that costs will not escalate beyond what is agreed. We are happy to provide a bespoke quotation for your individual case. We also have experience dealing with many of the leading insurance providers and defence organisations so are happy to discuss your needs with them to ensure that you get the best representation from your legal team of choice.