Regulators have vowed to take action against any solicitor found to have neglected their wider obligations simply to keep a client happy.
In an update published today, the Solicitors Regulation Authority reminded practitioners they must adhere to all their professional obligations when engaged in litigation.
The SRA cited the example of the use of non-disclosure agreements, incorporating issues such as discrimination, harassment or sexual abuse. Where lawyers have arranged these agreements, they are reminded they still have a duty to act with integrity and uphold the rule of law.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said solicitors should of course advance their clients’ cases, but stressed that they are not ’hired guns’ whose only duty is to that client. ‘They also owe duties to the courts, third parties and to the public interest. It is important for solicitors to recognise their wider duties and never to rationalise misconduct on the mistaken basis that their only duty is to their client,’ said Philip.
‘Those who cross the line into misleading the courts or abusing the litigation process should have no doubt that if we have evidence of this, we will take action.’
As part of its renewed appeal to solicitors on the subject, the SRA has refreshed its 2015 report on balancing duties in litigation.
But aside from the high profile of concerns about NDA agreements, it appears there is no surge in complaints about solicitors’ conduct in acting on conflict with their obligations. In its latest risk outlook report, the SRA states it received 1,350 reports of solicitors acting without integrity or ethics in the first nine months of 2018. This year’s figure is unlikely to match the 2,090 reports made regarding integrity or ethics concerns.
Trends identified in the risk outlook include a 43% increase in the number of money laundering reports (across the first three quarters of the year compared to 2017), and a 10% increase in reports of misuse of client money.
Around half the reports of email modification fraud, which has previously mainly involved conveyancing transactions, now relate to other areas of work. This suggests criminals are shifting to a wider range of targets.
Firms are advised to keep control of obsolete domain names, for example when they merge, close or change brand, to prevent fraudsters re-registering the old name and holding themselves out as solicitors.