The body that investigates solicitors has been cleared of institutional racism despite an independent inquiry concluding that it disproportionately pursues black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers for alleged wrongdoing.
Ethnic-minority lawyers were more likely to be the subject of investigations and tend to receive stiffer punishments than their white counterparts, according to a report commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) into its own activities.
The report found that ethnic-minority lawyers were at greater risk of breaking regulations because they were more likely to set up on their own earlier in their careers. This was in turn because of a lack of opportunity at big firms, which retain a bias in favour of public-school and Oxbridge employees, according to Professor Gus John, who led the review.
But his report concluded: “It is important that these results are not immediately interpreted as evidence of discrimination or racism on an institutional level.”
The report was criticised by a group representing black lawyers which said it was clear that “racial discrimination of one form or another” was responsible for the increased proportion of suspensions, fines and investigations suffered by BME solicitors.
The report was commissioned by the SRA after criticisms of the way that it pursued more than 3,000 investigations every year against solicitors amid allegations of race bias.
The report calls for closer scrutiny to discover “whether individuals… may have abused their position and exploited vulnerable solicitors”.
It follows claims that the SRA referred solicitors under threat of being struck off to “top-notch” advisers who charged thousands of pounds in fees with promises to resolve their problems.
The allegations led to a police inquiry but no action was taken. The case was excluded from Professor John’s examination of cases.
The SRA said: “Where there is evidence of abuse or exploitation of clients by a solicitor, the SRA investigates and will continue to do so. We cannot comment on individual cases.”
Professor John, an academic and experienced race-relations adviser, found that BME solicitors made up 13 per cent of the 166,000 total, but represented a quarter of misconduct investigations. He said of more concern was the finding that white solicitors were more likely to get minor punishments.
He looked at six cases involving BME solicitors in detail but concluded that there was no evidence to support a claim of racial discrimination in any of them.
He said: “It can be argued that BME individuals are less likely to come from backgrounds that enjoy the privileges of private schooling and, as a result, are under-represented in Oxbridge or other first-class higher-education institutions. As such, they lack the advantages enjoyed by other demographics when it comes to progressing in an élite profession such as practising law.”
The Society of Black Lawyers said it was extremely disappointed with the conclusion of the report and said that it was fundamentally flawed.
“Any analysis that suggests race is not a factor simply makes no sense,” said Peter Herbert, the society’s chair. “There’s clearly a significant problem and the obvious conclusion is racial discrimination of one form or another.”
The bungled investigation by the Metropolitan Police of the murder of Stephen Lawrence led to the organisation being condemned as “institutionally racist” in the Macpherson Inquiry report of 1999.
The report prompted huge upheavals within the police but Scotland Yard has struggled to shake off the label in the intervening 15 years.