The SRA issued its annual “Upholding Professional Standards” report for 2019/20 last month. In so doing they have outlined some of their more public activities and have also provided guidance on their main plans and concerns for the future.
Within the heading of “plans”, it is no surprise to see that the further enforcement of anti-money laundering controls looms large, whilst under “concerns” the demographics of the profession receive a good deal of attention, and the “longstanding overrepresentation of men” in law firms in particular. The new themes that are commented upon are workplace bullying and harassment, closely linked to the views now expressed on the problems of sexual harassment in particular, notwithstanding the successful appeal against the SDT judgment against him in this regard by City lawyer Ryan Beckwith.
On the issue of sexual harassment it is revealed that as of February 2021 the regulator had “more than 130 open investigations”, ranging from the sending of inappropriate messages and making unwelcome comments to actual sexual assault. The SRA claims to be working to develop its “decision-making in this complex and sensitive area”, but comments made in the immediate aftermath of the Beckwith decision suggested that the SRA would resist suggestions that it should curtail its investigations of such complaints as the court’s decision was widely understood to suggest.
On the topic of anti-money laundering controls it is reported that 74 monitoring visits were made in 2019/20. As highlighted in various of our past compliance bulletins, the need for regulated firms to undertake an independent audit of their need for controls, and for that audit in turn to shape each firm’s AML policy, is stressed. The need for more thorough matter risk assessments, better screening of new staff members and source of funds checking processes are also highlighted. Although not referred to in this report we have seen increased disciplinary activity where firms are viewed as failing to meet their statutory and regulatory responsibilities in this regard, in which respect we might expect to see similar reports in the future.
The other priority standards concern highlighted is the risk of involvement in dubious investment schemes – a topic reported on in more detail by the SRA as a thematic review report dated 17th August 2020. That report highlighted the fact that 48 solicitors, and two law firms in particular, had been taken to the Tribunal over such involvements with 16 strike-offs reported at the time, eight suspensions and £870,000 worth of fines. The cost to the compensation fund of such involvements was also commented upon. The work at that time resulted in the publication of a warning notice, updated to August 2020 but substantially dating back to its first version in June 2017.
The full report can be viewed at https://www.sra.org.uk/globalassets/documents/annual-reports/upholding-professional-standards.pdf?version=4a1bff.