The Solicitors Regulation Authority has said it has no plans to tighten its guidance for solicitors embarking on a sexual relationship with clients. This follows concerns outlined by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal about the advice provided to 59-year-old Surrey solicitor Richard Harbord when he developed a relationship with a client going through a divorce.
The tribunal heard that Harbord had twice called the SRA’s dedicated ethics helpline and was not explicitly warned against continuing the relationship while he acted for the client.
The tribunal’s judgment described the SRA response as ‘at best opaque’ and said the solicitor needed ‘clear and unequivocal’ advice that might have prevented him being subject to disciplinary action.
Regulators are currently revising the handbook and principles but appear reluctant to take specific action in response to the tribunal. The SRA code of conduct does not preclude personal relationships between lawyers and clients.
‘When it comes to personal relationships with clients every case is different,’ said an SRA spokesman. ‘A solicitor needs to consider the circumstances and use their professional judgement. When giving advice, we are clear that a solicitor should carefully consider the handbook principles, in particular making sure they are acting independently, with integrity and in the best interest of the client. They also need to consider whether their actions could undermine public trust in the profession.’
Given the sensitivities involved, he added, the SRA would also advise a solicitor to think ‘particularly carefully’ in family law cases.
The tribunal noted that until the 1950s a solicitor was prevented from acting for any client where a sexual relationship had developed during the course of the retainer. This was now a matter that may require ‘revision’, said the tribunal.
Family law organisation Resolution, of which Harbord was a member, states that lawyers should not have sexual relations with a client. Its guidance says: ‘If such a relationship exists or develops during the course of the retainer, then you should immediately explain that you can no longer act and, on the client’s instructions, either transfer the case over to a colleague and have no further involvement in the case, or cease to act and allow the client to instruct another firm.’
Where the relationship is intimate but non-sexual, lawyers are encouraged to cease to act if the client is likely to be detrimentally affected.