UK: Solicitors Regulation Authority tells firms to provide ‘safe environment’ for concerned staff

The UK Law Gazette reports

Failing to provide a safe environment for staff to raise concerns or admit a mistake could be a breach of SRA regulations, the regulator said today.

In ‘workplace culture’ guidance published today, the regulator states that firms should do ‘everything they reasonably can’ to look after their staff’s wellbeing and protect them from bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation. It expects firms to have effective systems and controls to supervise staff, and to monitor concerns which may affect their wellbeing and competence.

The publication follows high-profile cases where junior members of staff have been blamed and prosecuted for covering up mistakes. In several of these cases the individuals said they felt pressured by their work environment and afraid to come forward. The SRA has been criticised in some quarters for appearing to target junior solicitors rather than the firms in which they worked.

The new guidance states that requirements include ‘providing a safe environment for employees to raise concerns and addressing them promptly and in a constructive manner’.

It continues: ‘We also expect that firms have in place the systems and culture so that staff can confidently raise concerns and be supported if they are experiencing problems. This will help to prevent problems arising in the first place, or the situation worsening.’

Failure to provide a safe environment may breach equalities legislation or employment law as well as regulatory requirements.

The SRA guidance adds: ‘Proper supervision is more than just checking that staff are progressing client matters. It means making sure that, at the very least, firms have in place arrangements to regularly monitor and assess employees’ workloads and capacity as well as their competence to do the work.’

The regulator adds that where it finds serious cases of bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation within firms, ‘we will expect to see that the firm involved has taken action to prevent or address this behaviour’.

The SRA surveyed 200 solicitors and found that while three quarters reported working in a broadly positive environment, there were still concerns about working long hours, stress and pressure and focus on financial targets rather than other achievements.

SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: ‘We are concerned that some workplaces could potentially be contributing to mistakes and misconduct. We are now publishing a thematic review on what’s happening in the legal workplace, helping firms to consider what more they can do to ensure a positive culture, where solicitors at every level can speak up and the demands of a commercial environment are balanced with wellbeing.’