18 August 2020

Solicitors' ethics: the client or the public?

How should lawyers deal with disreputable instructions?

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has published another warning about solicitors becoming involved in dubious investment schemes, after recent cases led to the closure of seven firms and other regulatory action. This rightly highlights the welcome change of attitude we solicitors have had to make. 

It used to be that we represented the client's interests without regard to any wider morality, so long as we were not knowingly participating in criminal conduct or misleading the court. Now, we are required to have broader ethical standards and to have a duty to the public. I'm glad about that. 

Lawyers are now expected to carry out some due diligence and assure themselves that their clients are behaving legally, rather than just accepting the assurances and half-truths clients my give them. The public may assume, rightly or wrongly, that because a solicitor is involved, the investment is legitimate or money is protected.

Professional ethics grew up in the admirable tradition that solicitors represent their clients fearlessly and independently, and that everyone is entitled to legal advice. Solicitors rightly represent people accused of crimes or wrongdoing without allowing personal feelings to cloud judgement, drawing the line at actual knowledge: if you don't know your client is guilty, you can and should represent him in court. But in transactional matters we need a more rigorous approach that avoids actually assisting in schemes that are suspicious or disreputable. The fearless and independent advice is then that the client should not do it. 

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