In the past five years, the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) has received a large volume of complaints regarding sexual misconduct at law firms. It is believed that the number of complaints rose significantly following the SRA’s warning notice about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in 2018. The SRA was worried that NDAs could be used to prevent parties from filing a complaint to them. Therefore, the warning notice was issued to stress that the misuse of NDAs (i.e. using an NDA to prevent a person from reporting sexual misconduct) goes against the SRA’s principles and standards. Since March 2018, 251 reports about sexual misconduct at law firms have been made to the SRA.
On September 1st, the SRA published guidance on sexual misconduct to help all SRA-regulated firms and solicitors. The guidance states that there are less serious activities which will not lead to disciplinary action, like being overly friendly and putting an arm around one’s shoulder. On the other hand, it mentions that there is sexual behaviour that would raise a regulatory issue, and this includes: sexualised comments, sexually specific remarks about sexual activity or intimate parts of the body, unwarranted touching, etc.
Further, the guidance makes it clear that ‘a person must not abuse their professional position to initiate or pursue an improper sexual or emotional relationship or encounter with a client, a colleague or anyone else.’It is suggested in the guidance that the SRA acknowledges the line between an individual’s private life and professional life can become blurred. This makes it hard for the SRA to judge whether any conduct constitutes a regulatory matter. In the case Ryan Beckwith v SRA , Beckwith (former Freshfields partner) breached the SRA’s protocol by having drunken sex with a junior lawyer at the firm. He won his appeal against the decision in the High Court, and it was held that although his conduct was inappropriate, it was not an abuse of his position at the firm. The SRA has clarified in the guidance notes that their principles of integrity and trust in the legal profession can be upheld even in a solicitor’s private life (outside the work environment).
Following the guidance, we should expect more firms to promote a zero-tolerance culture of sexual misconduct. This should give employees the freedom and confidence to report matters to their firm or the SRA.