On 14th December 2020, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) published their second annual report covering their enforcement activities over the previous year. The Upholding Professional Standards report provides a summary of how the SRA have handled various reports and investigations, and highlights issues such as sexual harassment amongst other things.
The report also includes a review of the diversity characteristics of solicitors involved in the SRA’s enforcement process; this is the first time since 2014 that the SRA have reported these statistics.
Some of the key points to take away in this sense are:-
· 26% of concerns raised with the SRA related to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME (acronym used by the SRA)) solicitors.
· 32% of cases that were taken forward to investigation related to BAME solicitors.
· 35% of cases concluding at the tribunal related to BAME solicitors.
· Cases concluded by the SRA or at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for ethnicity were in line with the representation seen at the investigation stage.
On top of this, the report shone a light on the fact that the treatment of people brought through the disciplinary processes is also disproportionate based on race and ethnicity. 31% of solicitors struck off, 34% of those given a fine and 45% of solicitors suspended were BAME. Although one could argue that it’s difficult to make a judgement when taking in to account the low number of solicitors that were sanctioned, it is interesting when compared to the number of BAME solicitors who were granted an agreed outcome.
An Agreed Outcome arises where the SRA and the solicitor in question come to an agreement as to which allegations are admitted, the form of any sanctions and how the solicitor will “put the matter right”. This can conclude disciplinary proceedings in whole or in part. Despite the higher proportion of BAME solicitors being investigated, only 17% of BAME individuals concluded their case through an agreed outcome whilst 40% were resolved by way of a hearing.
So, what does this mean? Well, only 18% of the overall solicitor population is BAME. Once again, there has been an over-representation of BAME solicitors in both concerns raised with the SRA and those that have progressed to investigation when compared to the diversity of the profession as a whole. The SRA has stated that it is “unclear” as to why this may be the case as they had previously implemented 3 independent reviews in to the SRA’s processes to ensure that they are free from bias. On the other hand, they have recognised that wider societal factors may play a part in this and also accept that other regulatory bodies experience similar issues.
Despite these reviews finding no evidence of any issues with the SRA’s practices, the SRA has committed to looking again at their decision making processes. The SRA has also announced that they will be commissioning a new study into the treatment of BAME solicitors following the huge disparity in how groups are treated in the disciplinary process.
The Law Society has described the disparity as “extremely concerning”; I am sure many members of MJLD will agree with this view! The Law Society recently ran a report called “Race for Inclusion” with the help from the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division. The report found that BAME solicitors face barriers to progression at every stage of their career when compared with their white counterparts. This includes microagressions, the ethnicity pay gap and pressures to fit in to certain cultures.
The Law Gazette have highlighted that disappointingly, the figures relating to diversity characteristics for those involved in enforcement processes released in the most recent report are almost identical compared to 6 years ago when the SRA last published these statistics. So, why haven’t things changed? And what can we do as junior lawyers to help combat this unfairness and bias?
Unfortunately, we live in a society with a long history of institutional racism and bias. As junior lawyers coming up through the profession, it is our responsibility to do what we can now to create a more accepting, inclusive, equitable and diverse profession. Now, I am in no way saying that it is on each and every one of us to re-write our respective diversity policies and procedures, but there are simple things that we could implement in to our daily working lives to help make our businesses less biased and more welcoming. Small, individual changes can collectively have a significant impact on a businesses the culture. Try calling out microaggressions and racist “banter” as they are happening, listen to your colleagues of different backgrounds and put in the work to learn about other people’s experiences. Trying to combat the inequality within the profession or wider society is not going to be a quick fix, but taking small steps can really help make a difference.
One thing that we should all be doing is checking our individual unconscious biases and making an effort to tackle them.
Emily Driver, Associate & Paralegal at Jackson Lees Group, has created an in depth training session on unconscious bias as part of the JLG Diversity Committee’s work. On 4th February 2020, Emily will be holding an exclusive session for MJLD members to introduce them to the concept of unconscious bias and what we can do individually to make sure that we are aware of and pushing against those biases. If you’re interested in the event, head to the MJLD website to sign up!