SRA warns that settlement agreements should not prevent law firms from reporting discrimination in the workplace

The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (“SRA”) has recently released new guidance for law firms on how to (not) deal with confidentiality clauses (referred to in the media as “gagging clauses”) if allegations of discrimination, harassment or victimisation are made.

The guidance states that, if allegations of discrimination are made by a lawyer against her law firm and these allegations are upheld, with a settlement agreement (containing confidentiality clauses) agreed, the law firm concerned must, despite the confidentiality obligations, report the allegations of discrimination to the SRA (as the SRA views discrimination as a misconduct that “comprises a serious breach of [a solicitor’s] regulatory obligations”). A failure to report a breach is also likely to be treated a a serious breach of regulatory obligations.

The guidance also states that confidentiality obligations will be viewed as improper if they

  • seek to prevent a third party from: 1) reporting misconduct or a breach of the SRA regulations (or make an equivalent report to another regulatory body); or 2) making a protected disclosure under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998; or 3) reporting an offence to a law enforcement agency; or 4) cooperating with a criminal investigation or prosecution;
  • use confidentiality obligation to influence the substance of such a report, disclosure or cooperation; or
  • use existing confidentiality obligations as a means of improperly threatening litigation against, or otherwise improperly seeking to influence, an individual in order to prevent or deter or influence a proper disclosure

The guidance also states that law firms must be particularly careful to ensure that if the employee is not represented there is no abuse of position or unfair advantage taken, and if the agreement is a “settlement agreement” under the Employment Rights Act 1996 then the employee must receive independent legal advice (see here for our analysis of the statutory requirements of settlement agreements)

This new guidance from the SRA comes in the wake of media scrutiny of confidentiality clauses, which was itself prompted by (among other things) the revelations that Harvey Weinstein used confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements to prevent ex-employees of his production company disclosing misconduct on his part.

Chris Hadrill, partner in the employment team at Redmans, commented: “This guidance from the SRA simply reinforces the obligation for solicitors to report misconduct in the workplace and, further, that they not attempt or endeavour to assist an attempt to prevent a third party from reporting regulatory breaches or making protected disclosures.”