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Enforcing legal conduct to protect quality of legal services

Enforcement of professional codes and laws of conduct is a critical facet of legal regulation. Lawyer misconduct can have severe ramifications for consumers and the wider legal services market, eroding the reputation of the industry and jurisdiction. However, the processes and protocols for reporting misconduct by a legal service provider is often difficult or lengthy leading many to abandon the process.

The various reasons for inconsistency in reporting lawyers’ misconduct during litigation proceedings—and the extent to which it should be considered an actual inadequacy and a problem calling for a rule-based solution—have been the subject of active scholarly discussion and debate. One contributing factor may be the inherent inefficiencies involved with the current reporting system, which can be substantially mitigated through the effective use of electronic database technology. The successful experience with electronic filing and records in some United States court systems creates an opportunity for courts to extend these technological breakthroughs to provide logistical support to a much improved system for judicial reporting of lawyer misconduct. The creation of state and federal electronic databases accessible to and searchable by state disciplinary agencies would undoubtedly enrich the quality of enforcement in contributing jurisdictions, but expanding such a system to become accessible and searchable for the public would contribute to broader transparency and accountability. We have seen broader integration of technologies in other areas of legal services provision and regulation worldwide, so integrating such technologies into how consumers or other legal professions report misconduct seems a logical next step.

There is another component to enforcement of standards: the people who come forward and report misconduct. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has updated its Enforcement Strategy, which explains when and how it would take action against a law firm or solicitor. Within this strategy, the regulator has published proposed changes to the wording of its rules regarding when firms should report cases of potential misconduct to the regulator, as it became apparent that law firms were interpreting the existing rules in different ways. The updated rules emphasise that nobody should face detrimental treatment for making, or proposing to make, a report, following from feedback around concerns that individuals reporting potential misconduct may be victimised. Similar steps have been taken in the Australian system, which has recently taken a tougher stand in relation to reporting misconduct and the #MeToo movement. Such a proactive approach to regulating attorneys in Australia is used as a springboard to discussing the role of proactive regulation of lawyers in advancing public protection.

Of equal importance is that regulators and enforcement bodies remain open to circumstance. In Hong Kong, the Bar recently completed a ruling on aspects of the meaning of “fit and proper”. The case of Re A is a rare example of a barrister’s contested application for admission to the Bar pursuant to s. 27(1) of the Legal Practitioners Ordinance (Cap. 159). The application was dismissed at first instance due to a ruling that the applicant did not meet with standards of “fit and proper” due to a conviction of a criminal offence resulting in a custodial sentence. However, following an appeal, the Court of Appeal taking a more holistic “multi-faceted” approach, allowed the application for admission. In the process, the Court gave general guidance for determining whether (among other things) an applicant with a criminal conviction can demonstrate on the facts that he or she is fit and proper to be admitted to the Bar.