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New rules proposed to outlaw bullying culture in law firms

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has proposed changes to its rules that would explicitly require law firms to challenge employees who mistreated their colleagues.

The SRA published the proposed changes to its rules on Friday (11 March) for a 12-week consultation.

The proposals come in response to its recent Workplace Culture Thematic Review, which highlighted concerns around high levels of bullying, stress and workplace discrimination.

If the changes are accepted, law firms will have an explicit obligation to treat colleagues “fairly and with respect” and will be required to “challenge behaviour which does not meet this standard”.

A number of cases have recently come through the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal where there have been allegations of bullying and discrimination at work.

The consultation highlights a survey of lawyers in 2020/21 which found that more than 20% of respondents had been subject to bullying, harassment or discrimination. Almost seven in 10 had experienced mental health issues in the last 12 months.

The new rules would also enable the SRA to take action to manage any risks arising from an individual solicitor’s health, including at the start of their career.

While the current regulations give the SRA powers to act where it sees serious failings in the working environment, the new rules would be more explicit as to how firms challenged unfair conduct.

It said it did not seek to direct firms’ working procedures and practices and recognised that “practising law can sometimes be pressurised and stressful”, with long hours and heavy workloads.

It would, however, intervene in the case of “serious regulatory failure”, where a firm allowed a culture of unethical behaviour to flourish, or where staff feel unable to raise concerns.

It said: “In respect of the proposed new obligation to challenge unfair conduct, we would recognise the difficulties that junior staff may face both in raising concerns and in challenging their seniors.

“If we make the changes to our Codes of Conduct proposed, then we will make consequential changes to update our guidance and enforcement strategy as needed.”

The SRA also wants firms to include contractors, consultants and barristers they work with under the code of conduct’s remit, alongside salaried employees.

Juliet Oliver, SRA General Counsel, said: “A poor workplace culture can not only affect wellbeing, with all the distress and concern that brings, but also ethical behaviour, competence and ultimately the standard of service received by clients.

“It’s timely that, further to our recent thematic review and guidance, we consult on new rules that explicitly spell out what we expect from the firms and individuals we regulate.

“We also want to set out what the position is when a solicitor’s health issues may be affecting their ability to practise or to participate in our enforcement processes. It’s in everyone’s interests to get this right so we can manage any potential risks in a fair and proportionate way for all involved.”

The consultation will run for 12 weeks until the end of May.

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