In Industry Insights

In recent actions by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), drink-driving has become significantly more costly for solicitors, serving as a stark reminder of the regulator’s expected standards. 

The cases of Richard Lunn, Piers King, and William Rawstron illustrate this shift, with hefty fines based on a percentage of their income, following convictions for driving under the influence. These disciplinary measures reflect the SRA’s commitment to upholding public trust and confidence in the legal profession, emphasising that personal conduct, even outside professional duties, can have severe professional and financial consequences.

Recent SRA fines for drink driving have skyrocketed

Not so long ago, solicitors convicted of a drink driving offence could expect to receive a fine of around £1,000-2,000 or even a simple rebuke.

In the past few weeks however, the level of fines has dramatically increased, setting a precedent for future regulatory prosecutions.

Richard Lunn, a director of Haywood Lunn and Allen Ltd, was disciplined by the SRA for driving under the influence of alcohol. On 7 May 2022, Lunn was arrested in Grimsby after being found over the legal alcohol limit. He pleaded guilty on 10 November 2022 and was convicted, resulting in a 19-month driving disqualification, which could be reduced by 19 weeks upon completion of a driving rehabilitation course. In addition to the court’s penalties, Lunn was fined £13,836 by the SRA and agreed to pay £1,350 for the costs of the investigation. This fine was significant, being the largest ever by the SRA for a drink-driving offence, reflecting the SRA’s revised approach to account for income when issuing fines. The fine was initially set at an even higher level of £17,295 but was reduced due to Lunn’s genuine remorse, early guilty plea, and full cooperation with the investigation. Lunn’s conduct was deemed to have failed to uphold public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession.

Piers King, a solicitor at the renowned ‘royal’ law firm Farrer & Co LLP, was similarly disciplined by the SRA. After attending a rugby match, King was charged following a vehicle control loss. He notified the SRA, pleaded guilty, and was fined £1,348 by the court, with additional costs and a 22-month driving disqualification. The SRA imposed a £10,105.44 fine and £300 investigation costs. King admitted to failing to act in a way that upholds public trust, showing remorse and cooperating fully with the SRA.

William Rawstron was also disciplined for a drink driving conviction, leading to a fine of £4,308 and costs of £300. This action followed a conviction for driving over the legal alcohol limit, which resulted in a 22-month driving disqualification and a court fine. Rawstron’s conduct was seen as a breach of the SRA Principles, specifically failing to uphold public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession. The SRA’s decision to fine Rawstron was based on the need to maintain professional standards and public confidence, reflecting his direct responsibility for the incident and previous warnings for similar conduct. 

The SRA’s new approach to fines

Higher regulatory fines, which came into effect following consultations and legislative updates, were signalled by the SRA in 2022-23. This followed the increase in their fining powers from £2,000 to £25,000.

In a significant shift from past practices, the SRA overhauled its approach to fining solicitors and law firms. This new approach is now filtering through to publicised decisions, as evidenced by the cases above. The regulator says that these changes aim to make the fining process more equitable and reflective of the financial realities of those being fined.

Overview of the New Policy

The updated fining policy introduces several key reforms:

  • Fixed Penalty Regime: For minor offences (such as breaches of the Transparency Rules), the SRA has established a fixed penalty regime, simplifying the sanctions for lower-level misconduct. This move is intended to streamline the process and make outcomes more predictable.
  • Income and Turnover-Based Fines: Fines for both individuals and firms are now linked to their income or turnover. This means that fines are calculated as a percentage of the individual solicitor’s income or the firm’s turnover, with fines reaching up to 5% of a firm’s annual domestic turnover. This approach aims to ensure that penalties are proportionate to the person or entity being sanctioned.
  • Personal Impact Statements: In cases involving sexual misconduct, discrimination, or harassment, personal impact statements will be considered to assess the appropriate level of sanction. This pilot initiative is designed to give a voice to those affected by such misconduct and influence the determination of penalties.

Criticisms and Concerns

While the revised fining policy has been generally welcomed for its intent to tailor penalties more closely to the financial circumstances of the fined parties, it has not been without criticism. Some concerns raised include:

  • Proportionality and Fairness: While linking fines to income or turnover is intended to make fines more equitable, there may be concerns about how this approach affects individuals and firms differently, particularly in cases where income may not fully reflect an individual’s ability to pay.
  • Impact on Smaller Firms: Smaller firms, which may operate with thinner margins, could be disproportionately affected by fines calculated as a percentage of turnover, potentially threatening their viability.

The policy changes reflect the SRA’s effort to balance the need for effective regulation and deterrents within the legal profession with fairness and proportionality in its sanctions. As these policies are implemented and cases like those of Lunn, King, and Rawstrom are adjudicated, the practical effects of these changes will become more apparent. In the meantime, partners and higher earners beware. 

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