In July 2015, ten thousand solicitors, alongside members of the public, were invited by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to take part in a ground-breaking survey on professional standards, entitled “A Question of Trust”. The survey ran until January 2016.
What “A Question of Trust” Entailed
The “A Question of Trust” survey assessed 15 different real-life scenarios within which solicitors faced a range of difficulties. Each difficult situation was scored on a scale of one to five based on their severity. The survey then sought to gather thoughts on what people believed should happen next in each case.
The purpose of the campaign was to explore what responsibility and values mean in the legal sector, as greater freedom places increasing importance on the role of individual professional responsibility in public protection. “A question of trust” sourced survey feedback from a range of outlets, including interactive roadshows, public meetings and a formal consultation in the Autumn of 2015, in order to provide ample opportunity and ease of access for contribution. The feedback gathered was intended to be used in developing future SRA decision-making framework.
“A Question of Trust” pursued total transparency by gathering information directly from the public, in the hope that this honest feedback would enable the most effective regulation possible of the standards the public can expect from solicitors.
Immediately prior to the survey’s commencement Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, explained the survey with the following statement:
“Trust in your solicitor is critical, but trust is, as they say, hard won and easily lost. But how easily? Here at the SRA we have to ask and answer that question every day.
We know that principles such as honesty and independence are at the heart of solicitors’ professionalism, and we want to understand what that means in practice. We will be asking the profession and the public to join us as we work through scenarios about a whole range of issues, including solicitors drinking and driving, having client files stolen, misusing client accounts and even sending intimate pictures to their staff. And we will be asking what action people think we should take in the different situations.
Our ambitious reform programme is about setting and embedding professional standards that help create an open, competitive and innovative market. Ensuring consumer protection while reducing regulation places more responsibility on individuals (solicitors), so it is essential that we make sure we are getting the balance right when it comes to our decision-making and actions.”
(Information lifted from the SRA’s news release concerning the “A Question of Trust” survey.)
“A Question of Trust”; Findings
Simply put, the findings from “A Question of Trust” aimed to elucidate and establish exactly what should happen if a solicitor falls short of the expected.
5400 members of both the public and profession answered the survey, which used real life cases. By ranking the severity of these cases, such as drink-driving, client theft and breaking client confidentiality, the SRA determined that their current approach was actually largely consistent with both public and professional opinion. The current approach being that ‘misuse of client money, criminal activity and dishonesty’ are considered the most serious offences, as well as ‘clear intent to do wrong’. Findings also showed that the gross majority of solicitors are indeed meeting the standards the public hold.
One interesting discovery however was that the public view incompetency issues, such as losing files and misadvising, much more seriously than members of the profession.
What These Findings Mean For Solicitor Regulation
Whilst the survey found the majority of solicitors to be meeting public expectations, and the SRA to be successfully targeting the issues most important to the public, the survey’s results have provided the SRA with a solid base to build upon for setting future professional standards and solicitor responsibilities. The findings will therefore shape future SRA decision-making framework in years to come.
Indeed, since the survey’s completion, the SRA have publicly stated that the “A Question of Trust” survey’s findings are now being used ‘to help to develop our enforcement policy, which will provide clarity around where and why we would take further action’.