The UK’s solicitors’ watchdog is set to cease fining lawyers for personal misconduct offences, apart from in exceptional circumstances, with a view to using non-financial sanctions instead.
In a statement, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said it is pushing forwards with plans to amend its fining regime, after the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ) upped the watchdog’s maximum fining powers twelve-and-a-half times over last month.
The plans will see the SRA pivot away from handing out fines for cases involving sexual misconduct, discrimination, or any form of harassment, and use suspensions and strike-offs instead.
The watchdog also vowed to take firms’ turnovers and individuals’ own financial means into account when issuing financial penalties, as it suggested junior lawyers and senior partners may receive different fines for similar offences based on their salaries.
The plans come after the UK government upped the SRA’s maximum fining powers from £2,000 to £25,000, with a view to streamlining the disciplinary process by allowing the SRA to deal with more serious cases itself.
At the time, the SRA vowed to only issue fines in “exceptional circumstances,” after it faced significant backlash from law firms and legal sector lobby groups, over concerns about it having powers to impose huge fines without sufficient scrutiny.
Andrew Pavlovic, a partner at London law firm CM Murray, who specialises in SRA cases, said the proposals signal the watchdog’s intentions to increase transparency around its processes, after its fining powers were lifted earlier this year.
He said the SRA’s plans to pivot towards using strike offs and suspensions, instead of fines, in personal misconduct cases also reflect the watchdog’s intentions to take a tougher stance in response to “hardening” societal attitudes towards sexual misconduct.
“The SRA’s position going forward will be that, unless exceptional circumstances apply, sexual misconduct will attract a minimum sanction of a suspension,” Pavlovic said.
Danielle Reece-Greenhalgh, a partner at Corker Binning, said the SRA’s plans sit in line with the “tougher approach” it has taken towards sexual misconduct over the last three years.
In its statement, the SRA plans to introduce a series of “fixed penalties” for lower-level breaches, such as failures to comply with information requests.
The statement comes after a freedom of information (FoI) request filed by City A.M. showed a series of sector sweeps, including one that saw the SRA request information on law firms’ anti-money laundering policies, resulted in a surge in the number of fines.
The “one-off” anti-money laundering sweep led to 23 law firms being fined for failing to submit responses by the SRA’s deadline in 2021.