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19 August, 2009  
London Calling

Britain’s Solicitors Regulation Authority struggles to get its ethnic and minority balance up to scratch … Leverhulme encounters the SRA census form, which probes the mental health and gender assignment issues facing solicitors

imageA report by Lord Herman Ouseley was published in July last year and raised a number of concerns about the lack of awareness of diversity in the legal profession.

The former Racial Equality Commissioner had some scathing things (in a British fashion anyway) to say about the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the SRA.

The report is written in ugly but trendy language.

It is called an Independent Review into Disproportionate Outcomes for Black and Minority Ethnic Solicitors or, on my reading of it, “Why are black and Asian lawyers getting lots of complaints?”

All those gorgeous words get an airing: “baseline … benchmarks … piecemeal … strategic … ownership … proactive … organically [and] ... embedding.”

Herman asks why BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) solicitors are over-represented in all aspects of regulation as depicted in the statistics produced by the SRA. And what was the SRA doing about it?

In short, his answer is “a lot in theory, not enough in practice and with very little to show in positive outcomes” (p.4).

Some of the reasoning would have been frowned upon by my old evidence teacher.

“Not to be under-estimated is the level of prejudice and bias which exists among personnel in this (the SRA) and other similar organisations. No-one admits to the existence of such prejudice in the SRA and there is not the evidence to suggest that its application is widespread.

Nevertheless, in those areas of decision-making where subjectivity and discretion prevail, there is evidence of some stereotyping being applied and this needs to be tackled urgently” (p.6).

imageLord Ouseley (pic) said:

“There are approximately 40 adjudicators appointed by public advertisement and nine in-house adjudicators who work from home [a growing British tradition]. 2008 ethnicity data shows that eight of these are white and a ninth declined to say… [I wonder why?]

A recent exercise to recruit new panel adjudicators offered the SRA the opportunity to instruct its recruitment agent to take steps to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. While it appears that this was done very few BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) applications were forthcoming.”

[That’s me in the square brackets.]

* * *

Statistics present the learned author with some difficulty.

“Between December 2006 and December 2007, 954 matters were referred to the in-house adjudication team. Of these 138 (14%) related to BME firms, 67% were white and 172 (18%) were unknown. Although a smaller percentage of BME referrals were upheld (73% compared to 78% for white solicitors) more were referred to the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal (12% as opposed to 10% for white solicitors). Again, however, the ‘unknown’ figure skews these findings.”

At one stage we are introduced to the term: silo mentality. Didn’t Neil Diamond write a song about that?

“The SRA should address the adverse effects of the development of a silo mentality which works against openness, co-operative and collaborative working, shared learning and is protectionist to the respective silo.”

* * *

Well the SRA has been very busy.

Last month, it advertised for adjudicators. In the top right hand-corner of the ad beneath its logo is the phrase “Promoting equality and diversity in regulatory matters”.

Then it says:

“The Solicitors Regulation Authority is looking to appoint up to five adjudicators, with or without legal qualifications, to make formal decisions in regulatory matters.

Candidates must appreciate the impact of equality and diversity on decision-making. They must be able to demonstrate an awareness of the issues faced by a diverse consumer group and by a profession which is increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity and other factors.”

Then there is a bit about the pay and where you should send your application before the ad concludes, for those still in doubt …

“The SRA Board is committed to providing equal opportunities for all, irrespective of race, age, disability, gender, marital status, religion, sexual orientation, body odour [I added that bit] and to the principle of public appointments on merit with openness and transparency of process.”

What the job entails, or whether an applicant should have skill or good judgement, is clearly not relevant.

* * *

Last week all solicitors in England and Wales received a census with a letter from Rachel Lewis, head of operations, asking for information which would help the SRA monitor “the success of our efforts to guard against discrimination and promote diversity”.

The recipients were reassured that the information they gave would be subject to the famous Data Protection Act, 1998.

I think this means it’s confidential, but there is a reference number on the form and online you have to put in your SRA ID number.

If you “require any reasonable adjustments to access [their] services,” (presumably wheelchair ramps) they will contact you.

So they know who you are.

The SRA wants solicitors to tick a box if they consider themselves disabled and then they must give details of the impairment.

One category is “learning disability/difficulty or cognitive impairment”.

Have you noticed that you must say “stroke” these days, just like you must wiggle your fingers above your head when you’re quoting?

So it’s “learning disability stroke difficulty”.

Another is “mental health condition”.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t fancy my legal representative suffering from any of those ailments.

Then solicitors are asked about their ethnicity. The categories are many.

I was offended that Australians didn’t make it, though “Roma stroke Gypsies” did.

There is the curious category of “traveller of Irish Heritage”.

Imagine a complaint about one of them. “My lawyer kept trying to read my palm,” or “I tried to contact my lawyer but he kept leaving town”.

Then there are questions about one’s religion and sexual identity.

Getting a bit personal isn’t it? Are these disabilities? One of the categories is “Lesbian stroke gay woman.” Isn’t that what they do?

It finishes up with the cracking question:

“Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?”

You have to send your answers to the Operations Unit at Redditch. I hope this is not a new service being offered to lawyers.

The trouble is that in the campaign to treat everyone as equals solicitors are being asked to show why they should be treated differently.

Picture a submission to the Bureau de Spank.

“Our client Eric Chapatti is a gay Bangladeshi who flirted with Judaism in his youth and tried gender re-assignment surgery but didn’t like it. You know all this anyway. The fact that he half-inched 500 big ones from his client is neither here nor there.”

* * *

I expect Lord Ouseley was chosen because of his experience.

But he is also a black Briton who was born in Guyana. Shouldn’t they have chosen someone disinterested in the subject-matter?

I expect no-one qualifies.

Well not a human being anyway.