The Solicitors Regulation Authority has received only one formal report of a solicitor touting for criminal defence work despite anecdotal evidence of practices such as business cards being pushed under police station cell doors.
Publishing the findings of a thematic review on criminal advocacy yesterday, the regulator said it was concerned that firms are reluctant to report touting and reminded practitioners that they are obliged to 'promptly report' serious misconduct by third parties.
Solicitors and their agents are banned by the code of conduct from proactively approaching potential clients in person in a bid to increase business. In 2016 the SRA announced it was stepping up efforts to tackle solicitor 'touting' and would look at the issue more closely in its thematic review.
The review states that 11 firms gave specific details about their experiences of touting. Typical experiences included clients in custody being approached by other firms within prisons and clients receiving unsolicited letters.
The SRA was told that one person impersonated a probation officer to persuade a prisoner to sign a legal aid firm. Solicitors had attended court to find an unknown person with their client - the client then told the solicitor that they had been told the unknown person was from the solicitor's firm.
However, the SRA said only one firm had reported an incident of alleged touting: 'Firms suggested that touting was less of a problem than it had been previously, though it still existed. We are concerned, however, by the reluctance of firms to report instances of touting.'
Reasons given for not reporting included firms wanting to resolve the problem without getting the SRA involved, or they felt they did not have enough evidence to make a report, or they did not think the regulator would do anything.
The SRA said: 'Solicitors are under an obligation to report misconduct where they find it, so any instances of touting should be reported. In terms of evidence and action we take, we have informed firms that while we may not be able to act on individual reports, they may help to build up an emerging picture. Since our statement on 28 October 2016, we have received very few reports of touting.
'Touting takes place at courts, prisons or police stations, rather than at firms. It is therefore difficult for us to investigate without evidence. This does not need to be documentary evidence as we can build up a picture if several reports are received over time. We want to emphasise to firms that they can make confidential reports and that any evidence is useful to us.'