The character and suitability test for new solicitors

Having completed a degree, LPC and training contract, most trainees are anxious to begin life as a newly qualified solicitor. One final hurdle remains: the SRA Suitability Test 2011.

For most aspiring solicitors it is a formality. But some can be left apprehensive about how to complete it and what the SRA will make of any disclosure made.

What is the SRA Suitability Test 2011?

The SRA Suitability Test 2011 is found in the SRA Handbook. It is designed to enable the SRA to “ensure that any individual admitted as a solicitor has, and maintains, the level of honesty, integrity and the professionalism expected by the public and other stakeholders and professionals, and does not pose a risk to the public or the profession”

The Test is divided into two parts. New solicitors need only concern themselves with Part 1 (Part 2 deals with applications regarding Compliance Officers and those seeking authorisation which, for most new solicitors, will be some way in the future).

Basic requirements

Criminal Offences

The applicant will need to disclose any conviction or caution (unless they are protected) as well as any ongoing criminal matters. The applicant will also need to tell the SRA about any warnings, penalty notices, reprimands or referral orders.

Even where cautions or convictions are deemed to be spent, the applicant still needs to disclose them. The SRA has made it clear that if an applicant fails to disclose information about unprotected convictions or cautions it will be treated as prima facie evidence of dishonesty.

Assessment Offences

The applicant will also need to disclose whether they have ever committed (or been adjudged to have committed) a deliberate assessment offence that amounts to plagiarism or cheating to gain an advantage for yourself or others.

The SRA has made it clear that any offence of this nature will amount to an offence of dishonesty and they won’t allow the applicants admission unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Financial Behaviour

The applicant needs to disclose whether they have ever been declared bankrupt, entered into any Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVA’s) or had a County Court Judgment (CCJ) issued against them.

The SRA wants confidence in an applicant’s ability to manage their own finances as there will be times when they are in control of monies for their own business, as well as client funds. If there are issues with the applicant’s ability to manage finances, the SRA may refuse their application or admit them to the Roll with conditions upon their practising certificate (such as not allowing them to manage a firm or be a signatory on the firm’s client account).

Regulatory History

The applicant will need to disclose whether they have previously been the subject of any disciplinary proceedings brought by another regulatory body or been refused admission to another regulatory body.

Any other behaviour

Finally, the applicant will be asked whether there are any other issues which need be disclosed which may affect an applicant’s suitability to be admitted as a solicitor.

This category takes in those things which, while not a criminal offence, would call into question a person’s suitability to be admitted to the Roll.

This would include:

  • Dishonest, violent or discriminatory behaviour;
  • misuse of a position of responsibility to obtain a pecuniary advantage;
  • misuse of a position of trust in relation to vulnerable people;
  • or behaviour which demonstrates that a person cannot be relied upon to discharge their regulatory duties and adhere to the SRA Principles.

What if I have to disclose?

If you realise that there is something you need to disclose to the SRA, you must disclose it. If you fail to disclose and the SRA later discovers this information, they will invariably treat it as evidence of dishonesty. As I’ve said, dishonest behaviour almost always leads to a refusal to be admitted to the Roll and may be a bar on admittance at any point in the future.

If you find have to make a disclosure to the SRA about an issue, ensure that you deal with the following concerns:

Evidence

The SRA provides details of the kind of evidence that should be provided in any given case. The onus is upon the applicant to provide the evidence, although the SRA may still seek its own information.

The evidence includes:

  • at least one independent report – e.g. sentencing remarks;
  • references from at least two independent professionals;
  • evidence of rehabilitation;
  • documentary evidence/corroboration of the applicant’s account of the matter;
  • details of the applicant’s attitude towards the matter;
  • details of the applicant’s knowledge of matters relating to educational assessment issues;
  • credit check information; and/or
  • actions taken to clear any debts, satisfy any judgements and manage finances.

Rehabilitation

The SRA is clear that no applicant has an automatic right of admission. The burden is always on the application “to discharge the burden of satisfying suitability under this test. Any application that requires us [the SRA] to be satisfied as to character, suitability, fitness and propriety will be determined by reference to this test”.

Where evidence of rehabilitation is put forward, this will be weighed against the public interest and the need to maintain the reputation of the profession.

Steve Roberts is a partner in Richard Nelson’s SRA team.