The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has laid itself open to the charge of being institutionally racist, an independent report by the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality Lord Ouseley has found.
The report found that the regulatory body has been discriminating against black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers and subjecting them to potentially damaging investigations. According to the report, firms whose lawyers are predominantly African and Caribbean are six times more likely to be closed down than those whose lawyers are mainly white. Firms of predominantly Asian lawyers are three times more likely to be closed down.
Society of Black Lawyers chair Peter Herbert said white, middle class city firms were enjoying almost complete immunity from SRA inquiries, investigations and disciplinary sanctions.
“This level of institutional racism seriously undermines the principle of equal access to justice for all,” said Herbert. “This is as serious for the legal profession as the inquiry into the police investigation of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was for the Metropolitan Police Service.”
In the report Ouseley claims that the SRA’s staff stereotype BME lawyers and assume them guilty of misconduct before beginning to investigate complaints against them.
The report said: “Without the missing leadership emphasis, management at all levels will continue to regard the commitment to equality and diversity as superficial, tokenistic and unimportant.
“Potentially this still leaves the SRA open to the charge of institutional racism, as its policies, procedures, practices and actions, however unintended, can be seen to have disproportionate detrimental and discriminatory outcomes for BME solicitors.”
Society of Asian Lawyers chair Sundeep Bhatia said the report demonstrates that the SRA has not learnt the lessons of a 2006 initial impact assessment and continues to disproportionally target BME lawyers and solicitors in all facets of its regulatory work.
“The SRA appears to be incapable of putting its own house in order,” said Bhatia. “Token lip service to equality and diversity is not the way to dispel allegations of institutional racism. Radical root reform is required as a matter of urgency.”
Anesta Weekes QC, who chairs an SRA’s working party that looks into the impact of the regulatory body’s decisions on BME solicitors, said Ouseley’s report marked the important first stage in the process of dealing with disproportionate regulation of minority ethnics.
“The finding that there are approximately some 1,700 complaints against small firms or sole practitioners is very worrying, because a high proportion of BME solicitors are concentrated in this category,” said Weekes. “Urgent analysis needs to be carried out on the application of risk assessment of small firms and the perception that small complaints escalate into more serious matters once the SRA become involved.”
The report was commissioned by Society of Black Lawyers, the Society of Asian Lawyers, the Association of Muslim Lawyers and the Black Solicitors Network following pressure from justice minister Bridgette Prentice and the Home Affairs select committee chair Keith Vaz.