Solicitors Regulation Authority publishes conduct in disputes thematic review
SRA visits 25 law firms and finds some need to do more on SLAPPs
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) published on 14 February the results of a thematic review into conduct in disputes, which has been carried out in order to provide the SRA with a better understanding of the practices and litigation techniques used by law firms that act in privacy and defamation matters and that provide reputation management services.
Amongst the findings of the thematic review, the SRA states that some law firms need to do more to prevent the risk of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and other types of abusive litigation. The press release explains that the SRA already has approximately 40 ongoing investigations linked to SLAPPs.
The SRA review involved visits to 25 law firms, and although the regulator witnessed examples of good practice, including many solicitors demonstrating a good understanding of the risks, there were firms that “needed to do better.” The report sets out a number of case studies on good practice and areas for improvement. The SRA has also published accompanying checklists for firms based on the findings on SLAPPs, managing the risks in disputes, reporting misconduct, and training and competence.
The report details areas of concern identified during the review that increase the risk of firms not meeting the expected standard on conduct in disputes, which includes some solicitors not being aware of the SRA’s guidance on the matter, a lack of policies and procedures or specific training on how to conduct fair and appropriate litigation.
The SRA also identified instances where solicitors had a poor understanding of their professional obligations to report potential misconduct by others. According to the press release, three cases came to light during the review where a firm had identified potential abusive litigation by another firm, but had failed to report it to the SRA. The regulator is looking into these cases and will open a full investigation if it finds evidence of potential misconduct.
The SRA has outlined its next steps in light of the findings, which includes undertaking a further thematic review to: (1) check compliance with the SRA warning notice on SLAPPs issued after this review took place, (2) assess competence in this area and whether firms have, since publication of these findings, provided training on SLAPPs and conduct in disputes, (3) revisit some of the firms along with others where the SRA has concluded investigations into SLAPP complaints, (4) examine the steps taken by firms to prevent the possible illegitimate funding of SLAPP cases, and (5) examine the relationships between law firms, reputation managers, PR companies and private investigators.
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said “SLAPPs are a threat to free speech and the rule of the law. Solicitors should act fearlessly in their client's interest when bringing legitimate claims. They are, however, officers of the court. They must act with integrity and should never abuse the litigation process. This damages our society and public trust in the profession. Most solicitors take their duties seriously. Yet this review shows that some firms need to do more. Firms need to be sharply focused on meeting the high standards we all expect. We will be carrying out a further review of firms in this area, while redoubling our efforts to make sure our message is getting through.”