Recent case of struck-off junior lawyer highlights inner workings of Solicitors Regulation Authority helpline that purports to keep lawyers on the straight and narrow
The unfortunate case of a rookie City lawyer struck off after receiving a police caution for shoplifting has put the solicitors’ regulator in the spotlight for the ethics advice it doles out thousands of times annually — but does not record.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is facing questions over why it does not make a full transcript or recording of the guidance it routinely gives practitioners in relation to a range of highly contentious issues.
Triggering the current debate was the case of Anna-Louise Butcher. The DAC Beachcroft recently-qualified solicitor’s career came to a screeching halt in the summer when the profession’s disciplinary tribunal regretfully struck her off following a moment of madness. Passing through the netherworld that is the duty free shopping mall of Stansted Airport, Butcher half-inched a pair of Prada dark glasses worth £154.
The police arrested, cautioned and released her with no further action. A concerned and contrite Butcher – who claimed she wasn’t thinking straight owing to work and personal life pressures — then contacted the Solicitors Regulation Authority confidential ethics helpline to ask whether she must declare the caution to her firm and indeed the wider SRA.
This is where events become a bit hazy and disputed. At the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal hearing, Butcher’s lawyers submitted that the SRA’s ethics staffer advised that it was unlikely — to the point of being a negligible risk — that, unless she passed over the information herself, the wider SRA would learn about the caution.
Butcher claimed that the advisor said the authority and law firms were only interested in convictions, not cautions.
That advice — if given — turned out to be well wide of the mark. At practising certificate renewal time, DAC’s compliance form included a statement regarding both cautions and convictions.
The SRA strongly disputes that its staff would have provided that advice. An SRA spokesman told Legal Cheek:
“We would not reassure anyone that we would be unlikely to discover cautions for criminal offences. The ethics guidance team provides advice on the SRA’s code of conduct. An adviser would not have known whether or not her firm asked about cautions.”
Indeed, the spokesman for the profession’s policeman went on to say:
“Our ethics team in such instances reiterate that solicitors have a duty to report any matter that may constitute misconduct, and Ms Butcher confirms this is what she was told.”
The SRA points out that the practising certificate renewal form contains a standard question requiring any relevant information, and it is understood that the authority considers a caution for theft to be relevant.
However, the SRA spokesman confirmed that the authority does not make a written or taped recording of the 9,000 ethics advice conversations it has with solicitors every year.
Which begs the question: wouldn’t the SRA have avoided a world of grief and uncertainty if it adopted the technique employed by just about every financial service provider and larger retailing business? Anyone who has spent time on hold to a call centre is familiar with the line: “Calls will be recorded and monitored for quality control.”
Indeed, the Law Society — the body representing the more than 130,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales — said:
“We expect the SRA helpline to provide accurate and helpful information to its callers. It is for the SRA to determine how best to ensure and monitor that its helpline provides the best advice.”
For its part, the SRA maintained that recording ethics advice is not necessary, telling Legal Cheek that in the disputed incident
“the SDT heard the evidence in this case and did not think that Ms Butcher had been given misleading advice. We’re quite clear that she wasn’t advised that she wouldn’t need to declare [the caution], and the SDT, a court of England and Wales, agreed. We are saying no [to recording or noting advice] because we don’t think there is confusion here.”
Further complicating matters is that there are competing ethics helplines on offer to solicitors, a by-product of the split six years ago between the SRA and the Law Society. From its Chancery Lane headquarters, the latter runs a practice advice service that fields some 35,000 queries from solicitors annually.
But the society spokesman said that service wasn’t much cop at providing definitive advice on regulatory issues. For those queries, he said, “The Solicitors Regulation Authority is the place to provide such advice.”
Just don’t expect to get it in writing.
DAC Beachroft junior solicitor struck off after revealing police caution for stealing sunglasses in compliance questionnaire [Legal Cheek]