‘You must not turn a blind eye to wrongdoing’ – SRA consults on new guidance for in-house lawyers

England and Wales solicitors’ regulator cites example of Post Office scandal in call for feedback on resources covering areas including reporting wrongdoing by an employer
Windsor, UK- Feb 10, 2020: Post Office Sign outside a post office in Windsor

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The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is calling for views on a suite of new resources it has developed to support the nearly 35,000 solicitors working in-house in England and Wales.  

The materials have been developed in conjunction with the regulator’s virtual in-house solicitor reference group and build on issues that arose from its 2023 thematic review of working in-house and wider feedback from in-house solicitors over the past year.

They include a new document aimed specifically at employers that outline a solicitor’s professional obligations and the benefits of employing a regulated professional. The resource is also designed to help solicitors establish a mutual understanding of what this means they can – and cannot – do for their employer.

Other newly published guidance covers areas such as handling internal investigations and reporting wrong-doing by an employer. Alongside the guidance, the SRA has published a number of case studies illustrating how it can be put into action.

The move comes against the backdrop of the Post Office scandal which saw 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses prosecuted on the basis of information provided by its faulty Horizon accounting system and is regarded as the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history. 

Juliet Oliver, general counsel at the SRA, said: “As well as ongoing feedback from those working in the sector, recent high-profile cases such as the Post Office case have really shone a light on the unique challenges and issues which in-house solicitors can encounter.

“We have been working closely with the in-house community over the past year to consider what support we can offer to address some of these challenges. We believe these resources will provide valuable support and guidance to in-house solicitors across a range of important issues. But to make sure this is the case, we want to take this opportunity to invite those working in the sector to give their input.”

The section on reporting wrongdoing recognises that it can be “more complex” for in-house lawyers to fulfil their regulatory obligations “since their client is, in most cases, their employer”.

However, it reminds corporate counsel they must uphold “the constitutional principle of the rule of law” and with “independence”, “honesty” and “integrity”.

It adds: “In order to meet your wider public interest obligations, you must not turn a blind eye to wrongdoing or be complicit in it.”

The documents are being published ahead of the regulator’s second annual in-house solicitors conference, which is being staged next week and will bring together more than 250 in-house practitioners. The materials are also being published on the SRA’s website, with feedback being invited by 19 April.

The number of in-house solicitors in England and Wales continues to grow year-on-year and now accounts for more than one-fifth of all practising solicitors, the regulator said.

Last month, Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at the University of Exeter, told the Westminster Legal Policy Forum that lawyers were “at the heart” of the Post Office scandal and argued it had unearthed “broader cultural problems in the profession… symptomatic of how adversarial partisanship trumps justice repeatedly” leading to “excessive zeal” by practitioners on behalf of their clients.

He called on regulators to prioritise the policing of ethics in the wake of the scandal.

The draft guidance can be found here. Final copies of the new in-house resources will be published later this year. 

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