Fake news: solicitor suspended for misuse of social media

Susanna Heley, partner at Weightmans LLP and co-author of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (2nd edition), considers a real case where a solicitor found themselves in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT). A series of breaches of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Standards and Regulations were alleged, including falsifying posts on social media.
A person posts on social media using a mobile phone

Falsifying information

Over the course of a year, the solicitor posted false or misleading information on the firm’s Facebook page in posts which suggested that they, their firm or their partner had represented clients in court when they had not done so.

Examples of posts included:

  • “Great result at Cambridge Magistrates Court! So pleased and proud to be able to represent our client, who eventually managed to prove her innocence!!!”
  • “Double win today! Watford Family Court – successfully fought and suspended a prohibited steps order preventing a mother to leave the jurisdiction with the children. Milton Keynes County Court – successfully defended a set-aside application. The other party banned from making any further applications. Well done …!”
  • “Colchester County Court, 2nd January 2018. Successful eviction hearing on behalf of a landlord …”

The solicitor said the posts were “pure marketing” and accepted they were incorrect.

They confirmed that neither they nor their partner had attended any of the courts named on those dates and admitted that the social media activity was “showing off”.

The solicitor apologised to the SDT but stressed that they did not deliberately or knowingly breach any regulatory rules.

The SDT finding

The solicitor made the social media posts knowing they were inaccurate and in doing so, the SRA asserted that there were breaches of either or both of:

  • Principle 2: “You must ... act with integrity”
  • Principle 6: “You must ... behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services”

Other breaches of the SRA Standards and Regulations – including operating without SRA authorisation, keeping a client account and failing to nominate a money laundering reporting officer (MLRO) – were also upheld.

Notably, dishonesty was expressly not alleged in this case. Had dishonesty been alleged and admitted, it could have led to a striking off.

The SDT considered the Guidance Note on Sanctions (9th Edition – December 2021). In doing so, the tribunal assessed the culpability and harm identified together with the aggravating and mitigating factors that existed.

The tribunal noted that the solicitor’s failure to comply with the regulatory obligations was the result of a lack of awareness of the requirements, rather than a deliberate and conscious decision to avoid regulatory oversight.

As a result of the non-compliance, the solicitor had placed client monies at risk and created misleading social media posts about the activities of the firm.

The SDT rejected the application for an agreed outcome on the basis of a fine but accepted a varied application.

The tribunal ordered that the solicitor be suspended from the roll for six months and subjected to a two-year restriction order preventing them from managing any firm. The solicitor also paid £15,000 in SRA costs.

Your ethical obligations

The case demonstrates the serious consequences of a breach of SRA Principles and highlights the overarching high-level standards of ethical behaviour expected of solicitors.

Social media offers lots of benefits such as promotional, networking and marketing opportunities, but it’s important that solicitors understand the risks involved and to act accordingly.

In using social media, solicitors should consider the potential blurring of the boundaries between personal and professional use, and the importance of recognising that the same ethical obligations of professional conduct apply in an online environment.

The SDT has unlimited powers to fine, suspend or strike off a solicitor where they are found to have behaved unethically.

The SRA’s internal fining powers have also increased from £2,000 to £25,000. We’ve urged the SRA to introduce further transparency and accountability safeguards to prevent excessive and unjustified fines.

Learn what the SRA’s increased fining powers mean for solicitors

Mitigating your risks

As a member of the Law Society, you are part of a community of over 200,000 solicitors with access to a range of benefits to support you and help you thrive and prosper.

This includes practical resources and world-class learning to help you mitigate your risks, such as our practice note on social media.

The SRA has published a warning notice on offensive communications in relation to the inappropriate use of emails and social media.

We’re here to support solicitors in recognising and handling difficult professional situations. Discover our support for solicitors on ethical issues

Find out more

For a comprehensive guide to practice and procedure in the tribunal, refer to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (2nd edition).

Join the Risk and Compliance Section with key benefits such as Legal Compliance magazine as well as regular webinars and podcasts discussing ethical issues.

You can also save money on products and services through exclusive offers and discounts from our partners.

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