SRA Regulatory Principle and Powers – Sexual Misconduct

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recently and publicly announced its focus on eradicating sexual harassment with the legal profession, reminding solicitors the SRA will take a tough stance in addressing such misconduct.

Such harassment and abuse has been highlighted as a key theme in the last four annual reviews undertaken in ‘Upholding Professional Standards’, with the SRA issuing renewed guidance to risk managers within law firms on the behavioural standards expected of law firm employees and members of the profession.

It is unfortunate the need to issue a strong reminder arises on the back of 251 complaints received by the SRA of alleged sexual misconduct within law firms over the last 5 years with 117 investigations currently ongoing. The SRA reminded practitioners that fines would only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, the default sanction patently being striking off action.

The definition of sexual misconduct has a wide interpretation and includes ‘sending inappropriate messages or making inappropriate comment, non-consensual physical or sexual assault’, with members of the profession being warned offences can arise at social events and in private life outside and away from the office environment and encompasses behaviour towards colleagues, clients and anyone else. Misconduct also includes action that initiates pursuit of an improper sexual or emotional relationship or encounter as well as harassment and bullying.

Any such behaviour will likely result in a disciplinary investigation and action on receipt of a complaint. The SRA also requires law firms to initiate thorough and independent internal investigations on receipt of a complaint with the SRA making it clear they expect ‘a culture of zero tolerance’ within law firms