Racism faced by black and minority ethnic (BME) solicitors in disciplinary matters is as serious for the legal profession as the Lawrence inquiry was for the police, diversity groups have alleged.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority demonstrates a ‘cavalier disregard’ for the rights of BME lawyers, while ‘white, middle-class City firms’ enjoy regulatory ‘immunity’, they claim.
The groups were responding to what they described as the ‘fundamentally flawed’ study commissioned by the SRA and conducted by Professor Gus John (pictured) into how BME solicitors are treated by the regulator.
The study found BME solicitors were disproportionately represented at each stage of the disciplinary process and receive harsher sentences, but cleared the SRA of institutional racism.
The External (equality) Implementation Group (EIG), set up in 2008 to examine concerns about the treatment of BME solicitors, said it is ‘seriously concerned’ about the numbers of BME solicitors who are subject to disciplinary action.
Rejecting the report, the group described its failure to draw any inference of institutional racism as a ‘shocking indictment of a costly report that promised much but has delivered very little of value’.
John’s review found that while BME solicitors make up 13% of the profession, they account for 25% of new SRA investigations, 29% of interventions and 33% of cases referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The EIG bemoaned the lack of any ‘evidential basis or empirical data’ for the finding that BME over-representation is caused by a lack of ‘cultural capital’.
The group said it has requested a meeting with the Legal Services Board to highlight 12 ‘flaws’ in the report.
These include alleged failures to identify as racial bias the ‘serious disproportionality’ inherent in the sanctions imposed by the SDT against BME practitioners, and to ask the SRA and SDT to explain the reasons for disproportionality.
No consideration was given to the concept of ‘indirect racial discrimination’, where a policy or practice leads to a far greater likelihood of discriminatory treatment as a result of investigations of small firms, the group alleged.
It notes the report’s failure to state how or why the ‘strong inference of institutional racism and bias’ found by Lord Ouseley in his 2008 report had apparently disappeared, even though the statistical evidence appears to be similar.
The group called for a ‘proper and evidential-based’ review that involves interviewing BME solicitors and being advised by a legal expert on regulatory affairs.
In a statement it added: ‘The disproportionality seen in the profession is akin to the police arguing that institutional racism is not responsible for the stop-and-search figures. The review will lack all credibility in the eyes of the BME legal community.
‘The continuing disproportionality in interventions and sanctions is as serious for the legal profession as the Lawrence Inquiry was for racism in the Metropolitan Police.’
It added: ‘The SRA has shown a cavalier disregard for the rights of both BME lawyers and our wider communities. This is in direct contrast to the overwhelmingly white, middle-class City firms enjoying almost complete immunity from such enquiries, investigations and disciplinary sanctions.’
Professor John told the Gazette that a meeting has been arranged with the EIG to discuss the report and how the group can work with the SRA to ensure its input informs the regulator’s response.
The EIG comprises the Black Solicitors Network; the Society of Black Lawyers; the Association of Muslim Lawyers; the Society of Asian Lawyers; the British Nigeria Legal Forum; and the Turkish British Legal Society.