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If we are investigating you

Last updated 13 November 2014 

Enforcement action

We are responsible for regulating you and your firm in the public interest.

We will work with you to facilitate your compliance with the SRA Principles and the regulatory framework that flow from them. Our Supervision function is the risk-based oversight of the entire regulated community. Supervisors work constructively with firms when events occur or thematic work is relevant to the firm. However, enforcement action will be taken if there is serious non-compliance with the SRA Principles or a risk to the public exists which cannot be mitigated.

Firms and individuals

Compliance with a firm's regulatory obligations is the primary responsibility of a firm, however we may decide to investigate you as an individual where, for example, there is evidence of personal culpability (see Criteria to determine the focus of an investigation).

We may decide to write to you, setting out allegations or potential breaches of the SRA Principles. We will write to your firm's SRA contact or, if we are raising issues for you to consider, we will write to you directly. We will ask you or your firm for a written explanation.

If you are an employee, we may

  • write to the firm that employed you at the time of the alleged failure to comply, or
  • write to your current employer, if you have moved firm.

Your reply will help us, and you have an obligation to deal with us in an open, timely and cooperative way.

What happens next

We may decide that further action is necessary if, in our view,

Our investigation may be desk-based whereby we communicate with you in writing and by telephone. Alternatively, we may decide to commence an on-site investigation.

On-site investigation – background

We may decide to conduct a formal on-site investigation of your firm. This differs from any visits we make where we are working with you as part of our Supervision function. If so, we will normally give you reasons for our visit. We recognise this helps you respond constructively and assists with any difficulties you may experience as a result of our visit. We understand that by visiting your practice this can cause disruption and we aim to reduce this as much as we can.

It is possible we may not provide you with reasons if, by doing so, it would

  • breach any duty of confidentiality;
  • disclose or risk disclosure of a confidential source of information;
  • significantly increase the risk that those under investigation may destroy evidence, seek to influence witnesses, default, or abscond; or
  • otherwise prejudice or frustrate an investigation or other regulatory action.

Where we give reasons, our investigation is not limited to or constrained by the reason given for the investigation. By giving reasons, we aim to maximise transparency; however, to ensure investigations are effective, we will not delay our work through discussions about the reasons given or the extent of the reasons given. We seek to ensure our investigations are focused.

For more information, please read Transparency, protecting the public and reasons for investigations.

The on-site investigation itself

We will probably visit your main practice address. We may also visit branch addresses with the least interruption possible.

We will hold an initial meeting with managers, owners or other individuals such as your COLP or COFA.

We will normally request information, documents and explanations from you. Our investigation will continue until we are satisfied that we have gathered all the information we need. You have certain obligations with which you must comply (see rules 3, 8.7, 8.8, 8.9, 8.10, 18, 23, 24 and 25 of the Authorisation Rules; rule 18 of the SRA Practice Framework Rules; rule 32 of the SRA Accounts Rules; regulations 1.2, 4.3, 4.5, 4.8, 4.12 and 15 of the SRA Practising Regulations; Chapter 10 of the Code of Conduct).

Following this, we will probably hold a final meeting with you. We may make an audio recording of the meeting.

Outcome of an on-site investigation

The outcome of our on-site investigation depends on the judgement we reach in relation to the facts we gather.

All on-site investigations result in a factual report being made and passed to our Supervision function. The report details whether no breaches were found or, if there were breaches, we will outline these breaches.

Supervision will then address any minor breaches to facilitate compliance on an engagement basis, or decide that we need to take further action for more serious breaches, such as

  • a referral to the Crown Prosecution Service, Serious Fraud Office or other agency;
  • disqualification of a Reporting Accountant and, possibly, reporting them to their regulator; or
  • a more detailed desk-based investigation, requiring your written explanation before a final decision is made.

We may use our factual report and your explanations in any future proceedings issued in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

Your obligations and our powers

Following notice from us, you must provide us with any

  • records;
  • papers;
  • client and controlled trust matter files;
  • financial accounts and other documents; and
  • any other information necessary to enable us to prepare a report on your practice's compliance with rules 6, 7 and 31 of the SRA Accounts Rules 2011.

We may also serve you with a notice to provide us with all relevant documents in your possession or your firm's possession pursuant to section 44B of the Solicitors Act 1974 (see also Schedule 2, paragraph 14 of the Administration of Justice Act 1985 and section 93 of the Legal Services Act 2007). If you do not deliver the documents as directed, we may appoint an agent to collect them. If necessary, we will recover the costs incurred from you or your firm. These costs are recoverable from you as a debt.

In addition, we may require you to attend, at a time and place specified by us, to provide an explanation in respect of the information or documents we require from you. This is known as an investigation meeting.

If we consider it appropriate, we can apply to the High Court for an order requiring another person to provide the information or documents we require.

Except for documentation sought pursuant to section 44B and the equivalent powers, we will not take original documents, but you need to provide us with copies if we request them. You must be able to produce material kept electronically—in the form we require. If necessary, you must provide written permission for us to seek verification from clients, staff, banks, building societies and any other financial institutions you use.

You should be aware that it is an offence for a person who knows or suspects an investigation is taking place, or is likely to take place, and who

  • falsifies, conceals, destroys or disposes of a document they know or suspect is relevant, or
  • causes or permits falsification, concealment, destruction or disposal of such a document.

We may decide to prosecute such an offence (see Policy on criminal prosecution by the SRA).

Our investigations will not generally be stayed because of concurrent proceedings unless there is a real risk of prejudice which may lead to injustice in our regulatory work or the concurrent proceedings, or both. Our work will therefore continue in the absence of compelling evidence that it should be stayed. The approach of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is set out in a practice direction which provides that the existence of other proceedings will generally not be regarded as justification for an adjournment. In referring to the existence of other proceedings the practice direction provides, "The existence or possibility of criminal proceedings (is not generally regarded as providing justification for an adjournment) unless the criminal proceedings relate to the same or substantially the same underlying facts as form the basis of the proceedings before the Tribunal and there is a genuine risk that the proceedings before the Tribunal may 'muddy the waters of justice' so far as concerns the criminal proceedings. Proceedings which are not imminent will not usually meet this criterion. Civil proceedings are even less likely to do so."

For detailed information, our policy statement on the use of investigatory powers sets out the practice and processes governing these investigatory powers.

Enforcement: Findings and decisions of the SRA

If you are a firm or regulated individual

Where we decide there has been a failure to comply with your obligations, we may

We may also decide to refer the conduct of employees or managers of a licensed body to an individual's appropriate regulator (see section 98 of the Legal Services Act 2007).

If you are a non-solicitor we can require a solicitor, registered European lawyer or firm wishing to employ or remunerate you to obtain prior written permission from us. We also make or seek an order requiring our permission be obtained before you become a manager or acquire an interest in a firm. We can do this if you have either

  • been convicted of a criminal offence, or
  • been involved in misconduct relating to your involvement in a legal practice.

We will take action if we think the offence or misconduct are serious and supported by evidence.

Please note that the links provided are not an exhaustive list of authorities but are designed to assist you.

In some cases, you have a right of appeal.

Invoking the SRA's appeal procedure

Generally, you have an internal right of appeal against a decision to

Generally, you have no internal right of appeal against a decision to

  • issue you with a letter of advice;
  • authorise the making of an application to the SDT (such a decision is a decision to prosecute, not an adjudication);
  • intervene in your practice (a challenge to an intervention can only be brought in the High Court);
  • issue directions rather than factual findings, including a decision to stay or adjourn;
  • investigate, for example by requiring the production of information or documents;
  • enter into an agreement with the SRA;
  • order you to pay the costs of an investigation.

(See rule 1.1 and rule 11 of the SRA Disciplinary Procedure Rules 2011.)

How to appeal internally

If you are making an internal appeal under the SRA Disciplinary Procedure Rules 2011, you must appeal within 14 calendar days of the date of the letter or electronic communication informing you of the decision or within a longer period if specified by us.

If you are making an appeal under the SRA Authorisation Rules 2011 or the SRA Practising Regulations 2011 you must generally commence an appeal within 28 days of notification of the relevant decision. You should consult rule 32.1 in some detail.

Your appeal must clearly state the reasons for your disagreement with our decision.

You must check the rules in detail since in some cases you must invoke the SRA's internal appeals procedure before you may appeal to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal or High Court, where there is such a right.

Appeals to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal

If you are a solicitor, REL, RFL or if you are a recognised sole practitioner, a recognised body or are involved in such a body as a manager or employee or licensed body, you have a right of appeal to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) if we have made a direction or decision to

  • rebuke you (where we have also made a decision to publish the decision to rebuke);
  • fine you; or
  • publish a decision to fine or rebuke you.

Where you are subject to such a direction or decision, you may appeal to the SDT within the period of 28 days from the date on which the notice of the direction or decision is given to you, or if there has been a decision following an internal appeal, within the period of 28 days from the date on which the notice of that decision is given to you (see SDT Appeal Rules 2011).

An appeal lies to the High Court from the SDT. The High Court may make such order as it thinks fit.

If you are a non-solicitor and we or the SDT have made an order under section 43 of the Solicitors Act

  1. requiring a firm wishing to employ or remunerate you to obtain prior written permission from us, or
  2. requiring a firm to obtain our permission before you become a manager or acquire an interest in a firm

you may make an application to the SDT for it to be reviewed.

If you are a licensed body or are involved in a licensed body

You have a right of appeal to the SDT where we have made a direction or decision to

  • rebuke you (where we have also made a decision to publish the decision;
  • fine you;
  • disqualify you from acting as a HOLP, HOFA or manager of a licensed body (SRA Authorisation Rules 2011);
  • refusal to bring such a disqualification to an end following an application to do so;
  • taken certain decisions under Schedule 13 of the Legal Services Act 2007, such as to impose a condition upon an investor's material interest in the licensed body or to object to (i.e. refuse to approve or withdraw approval) a material interest being held.

You may appeal to the SDT within the period of 28 days from the date on which the notice of the direction or decision is given to you as appellant, or, if there has been a decision following an internal appeal, within the period of 28 days from the date on which the notice of that decision is given to the you as appellant.

If you are an licensed body or in some cases the person to whom the decision relates

Rule 31 of the SRA Authorisation Rules 2011 provides you with rights of appeal to the SDT which includes decisions to

  • revoke or suspend authorisation;
  • modify the terms or conditions on authorisation;
  • withdraw approval of you as a manager, COLP or COFA;
  • withdraw approval of a person being an owner of a licensed body
  • impose conditions on the holding of an interest

You should check the rule in detail since the rule specifies when you must first invoke an internal appeal or when you may do so.

Where you are subject to such a direction or decision and you appeal under the SRA Authorisation Rules 2011 you may appeal to the SDT within the period of 28 days:

  1. from the date on which the notice of the decision that is subject to appeal is given to you as appellant;
  2. from the date on which the notice of the refusal of an appeal under the internal appeals procedure is given; or
  3. from the date on which the notice of the decision to impose a condition under the internal appeals procedure is given;

as appropriate.

In some cases there is an onward appeal to the High Court from decisions of the SDT (see the Legal Services Act 2007 (Appeals from Licensing Authority Decisions)(No.2) Order 2011).

If you are a recognised body

Rule 30 of the SRA Authorisation Rules provides you with rights of appeal to the High Court in relation to some decisions including decisions to

  • modify the terms and conditions of authorisation;
  • not to approve you, or to withdraw approval of you as an owner, manager, COLP or COFA;
  • suspend or revoke authorisation.

You should check the rule in detail since the rule specifies when you must first invoke an internal appeal or when you may do so.

Where you are subject to such a direction or decision and you appeal under the SRA Authorisation Rules 2011, you may appeal to the High Court within the period of 28 days

  1. from the date on which the notice of the decision that is subject to appeal is given to you as appellant;
  2. from the date on which the notice of the refusal of an appeal under the internal appeals procedure is given; or
  3. from the date on which the notice of the decision to impose a condition under the internal appeals procedure is given;

as appropriate (see rule 32 of the SRA Authorisation Rules).

If you are a licensed body

In some cases there is an appeal to the High Court (see rule 30 of the SRA Authorisation Rules and the Legal Services Act 2007 (Appeals from Licensing Authority Decisions)(No.2) Order 2011).

Direct appeals to the High Court

You have a statutory right of appeal directly to the High Court where we have made a decision to impose a condition on your practising certificate, registration or authorisation if you are a recognised body.

Calculating external appeal periods

When calculating the period of "28 days from the date on which the notice of a direction or decision is given to the appellant", the SRA will deem notice to have been received by the appellant

  • on the second weekday after the date of a letter containing such a notice is posted by first class post;
  • on the first weekday after an electronic communication has been sent which contains such a notice, such as where an email is sent or where a notification that a communication is available via mySRA is sent.

For example:

  • the SRA will deem a letter posted on Monday, 1 October, to have been received on Wednesday, 3 October, and therefore an appeal should be made by Wednesday, 31 October;
  • the SRA will deem an email sent at any time on Monday, 1 October, to have been received on Tuesday, 2 October, and therefore an appeal should be made by Tuesday, 30 October.

In some cases, the rules will define the period. In other instances, the appeal period will run from the "date of notification" or "notice" as defined for the purposes of the SRA Handbook. Therefore, in each case, you should refer to the wording of the relevant provision giving rise to the appeal right.

Where to find help

You can seek independent advice at any time during the investigation. There are various sources of advice and support which can be found at www.sra.org.uk/support.