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Misuse of social media ‘a real problem’ for solicitors

Increase in complaints about inappropriate communications prompts new guidance

25 August 2017

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Solicitors should take greater care when using social media and emails, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has warned, following a significant rise in the number of complaints it has received concerning offensive communications.

A new warning notice published by the regulator advises that inappropriate communications made in the course of practice, or online comments posted in a personal capacity and which might be deemed offensive or inappropriate, could lead to disciplinary action if the author can be identified as a solicitor.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “We expect solicitors to act at all times with integrity, including on social media and when commenting in what may seem to be a personal capacity. Public confidence in the profession is undermined by offensive or inappropriate communication and the misuse of social media can be a real problem.

“But this is also about communication within an office or to clients. Solicitors cannot justify their conduct by saying that the communication was private, or they did not intend to cause offence, or that recipients were not offended. There is a risk that if you send an email which has the potential to cause offence and that email subsequently comes to light, we might take action.”

The regulator cited examples of the types of behaviour it has investigated, including: offensive comments about another person’s race, sexual orientation, or religion; referring to women in derogatory terms; making victimising comments; using threatening language; and making offensive comments to another law firm about it or its client.

The warning follows a spate of recent cases involving offensive communication. Earlier this month solicitor Majid Mahmood was fined £25,000 and handed a suspended 12-month ban from practice by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after he posted anti-Semitic messages on Facebook.

In one of these posts, Mahmood said: “Somebody needs to shoot all the Israeli Zionists dead then send their bodies to America as a present for Obama and his Zionist pals.”

Commenting on the tribunal’s decision, Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: “What is posted on social media sites should be treated no differently to what is said face-to-face. These sites should not act as hiding places for racists and anti-Semites. Online comments arguably deserve greater scrutiny, as their reach is often far wider and they persist in the public domain until removed.”

Last year, Mark Small, director of Baker Small, was rebuked and fined £600 by the SRA for posting a series of late night tweets appearing to gloat over defeating cases brought by parents of children with special education needs and disabilities.

Also in 2016, DLA Piper partner Nicholas West was fined £15,000 and given a £12,000 costs order after using language described by the SDT as “despicable” in email exchanges with Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore.

In 2015, three former partners at OH Parsons and Partners were fined a total of £14,000 by the SDT after exchanging “offensive, crass, puerile, and inappropriate” emails about colleagues.

Matthew Rogers, reporter

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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