Reports are showing an increase in complaints to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Bar Standards Board (BSB) regarding the conduct of solicitors and barristers outside of their professional work.
In response to a Freedom of Information request in January 2020 the SRA revealed that reports of sexual misconduct by solicitors had more than doubled since 2014, with an increase of 16% in 2018-2019 alone. In June 2020 it was reported that the SRA had noted a further rise in reports of sexual misconduct over the previous six months.
Sexual misconduct amongst the solicitors’ profession has received public attention in recent months with high profile cases in which partners have been fined by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) after being found to have engaged, or attempted to engage, in sexual activity with junior colleagues. Some large firms have since announced measures to curb cultures of heavy drinking and firm-endorsed holidays, where incidents of sexual misconduct can occur.
At the Bar Standards Board (BSB) the Annual Enforcement Report for 2018-2019 revealed no increase in reports of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct on previous years, although a 2018 report into gender equality at the bar found that a large majority of female barristers had experienced discrimination and harassment but did not report it.
However, the BSB did report an increase in complaints regarding barristers’ conduct on social media, with proceedings being brought against three barristers for inappropriate use of social media in 2018-19. The BSB expects to see this number increase in subsequent years.
It has long been accepted that regulated professionals can find themselves investigated and potentially sanctioned by their regulators for conduct outside of their professional work, but this can be all too easily forgotten especially as the lines between professional and personal life become increasingly blurred.
Individual solicitors and barristers must remember to uphold the standards of their profession both within the workplace and outside of it, whether that be on social media or at social events. Legal firms have their own responsibilities to ensure that their culture does not foster such misconduct and that appropriate action is taken if they become aware of misconduct by partners or employees which could bring the profession into disrepute.
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