The Solicitors Regulation Authority published new guidance on the risks of failing to protect and support colleagues in workplace environments. Rebecca Atkinson looks at the detail.

The guidance, ’Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues’, was published in February 2022 and sets out the SRA’s approach when considering if firms have failed to take appropriate steps to look after their staff’s wellbeing in the workplace. It also outlines the main SRA standards that apply to law firms and “those responsible for their culture and the systems in place within them” (presumably this means senior management in the firm).

At first glance the guidance doesn’t read like guidance but more of a statement of what the SRA expects and how they will handle any breaches.

The SRA have received complaints of firms being unsupportive and/or having a bullying or toxic working environment and culture, with concerns ranging from systemic bullying, discrimination or harassment as well as the failure to address such unacceptable behaviours when complaints were raised. They also set out that they have seen concerns of failure to provide the support systems and supervision necessary to deliver legally competent services and pressure being exerted on staff to take short cuts or act unethically.

The SRA say that they expect firms to:

  • have in place effective governance structures, arrangements, systems and controls to ensure that the firm and staff can comply with all applicable regulatory and legislative requirements, as well as managing all material risks to the business – paragraph 2 of the Code of Conduct for Firms;
  • provide a proper system for supervising client matters and ensuring that the supervision regime means that workloads and competence to undertake the work are assessed – paragraph 4 of the Code of Conduct for Firms;
  • act in a way which encourages equality, diversity and inclusion- SRA Principle 6 whereby firms must treat all employees fairly and with dignity (and for firms to address any inappropriate behaviour promptly);
  • provide a safe environment for employees to raise concerns and to address them promptly and in a constructive manner; and
  • have appropriate policies in place on bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation as well as disciplinary procedures for breach of those policies.

In line with their enforcement strategy, where breaches are a one off, the SRA say they are unlikely to take action. However, where breaches display some of the following features action is likely to follow:

  • a pattern of abuse of authority by senior staff that has been left unchecked by the firm
  • a complaint of discrimination, victimisation or harassment not dealt with by the firm in a prompt and fair manner
  • complaints of bullying raised with the firm over a period of time involving a number of staff with inadequate action taken by the firm as a result; or evidence that the incidents had not been brought to light sooner because of the firm’s culture and/or inadequate reporting and disciplinary procedures;
  • a firm pressurising staff to withdraw their complaints;
  • ineffective systems and controls, including failure to supervise or support staff leading to serious competence or performance issues or delivery failures; and
  • the imposition of wholly unreasonable workloads or targets.

The SRA provides case studies to support this guidance. This new guidance needs to be considered by all those responsible for risk and compliance in a law firm including senior management and human resources.

Rebecca Atkinson is the author of the recently published Financial Crime: A Compliance Manual, published by the Law Society. Order your copy here.