The SRA Risk Outlook 2015/16 highlights what it considers to be the high priority risks for the coming year. Here we take a look at Risk 4, Lack of independence, in a bit more detail.
What is the issue?
There are concerns that when a solicitor has a major client that is responsible for a large proportion of the firm’s income, the client may become overbearing and demanding, which is when challenges to independence are most likely to arise.
Current trends show that the numbers of in-house solicitors is rising, with many working in within very sophisticated legal departments (a ‘firm within a firm’). There is a danger here of the solicitor’s voice – and ethical considerations – getting lost in the bigger, more influential and commercially-driven voice of the employer.
Similarly, professional independence may also be challenged when solicitors go into business with non-lawyers, for example by forming an Alternative Business Structure in the PI sector with a claims management company. These are risks that the regulator probes carefully when presenting such ABS business models.
What does the SRA say?
The 10 SRA Principles are absolute and must not be compromised. They are the ‘ten pillars of legal practice’, and all of the conduct rules flow from them. Although the SRA does acknowledge that the Principles can conflict with each other at times, the message is explicit – whatever Principle best serves the interests of the public is the one that prevails.
The SRA says ‘any challenges to a solicitor’s integrity, professionalism and independence should be managed effectively.’ Independence cannot be allowed to play second fiddle to the promotion of a client’s needs or the desire to maximise a return. Nor should these goals be pursued blindly and at the expense of the other Principles. When a lawyer’s independence is undermined or compromised, it is likely to undermine the rule of law and the administration of justice.
With a consultation on professional standards imminent, along with commissioned research into solicitor independence, there is clearly a strong desire to gain a better understanding the issues, and we will be watching this with great interest.