The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has accepted the findings of an independent report showing black and minority ethnic (BME) solicitors to be over-represented in its regulatory activities.
Responding to the review by Professor Gus John, published in March, the SRA said today that the conclusion that BME solicitors continue to be disproportionately over-represented at key stages of the regulatory process is 'consistent' with the findings of previous reviews and the SRA's own consideration of the issue.
Such findings are 'sadly, not uncommon for other professional regulatory bodies or for the legal sector generally', the response noted.
John's review found there was no evidence of direct discrimination, including in the individual cases reviewed, in the way the SRA applied regulatory policies and processes.
The disparity, he said, highlighted broader challenges faced by small firms or sole practitioners - a constituency in which BME solicitors are over-represented.
The SRA said it had been addressing the issue for the past seven years and had found 'an emerging pattern of disproportionality' that showed BME solicitors were over-represented in regulatory decisions and outcomes.
This finding is of 'very significant concern', it said.
'We accept that those who represent BME solicitors are justified in challenging us and asking us to explain why the disproportionality continues, particularly as the review does indicate that disproportionality exists at the investigation and outcome stage,' said the regulator.
'We recognise that we have an issue which we need to address and we recognise that we need to identify and explain the reasons for any disparity, and demonstrate through evidence that there is no institutional bias or discrimination in the way we regulate.'
The SRA said its response has been informed by engagement with BME solicitors and organisations representing them, the Law Society's equality and inclusion committee, the Lawyers with Disability Group, sole practitioners and the Law Society, as well as SRA employees.
It has already embarked on a programme of regulatory reform and measures to address the disproportionality.
These include improved internal quality assurance processes to provide greater assurance that discretionary decisions are fair, consistent and free from bias and an 'enhanced programme of engagement to ensure the SRA understands the issues experienced by its stakeholders'.
The SRA said it had also improved data analysis and continued efforts to recruit staff, board and committee members from more diverse backgrounds.
In addition it will engage with the Law Society and other representative groups and with individual solicitors to take stock of the range of activities being undertaken to reduce barriers and increase diversity in law firms.
'Our objective will be to identify better ways to work together in a co-ordinated way on this issue and to accelerate progress. We will report on our work on this issue in October 2014,' it said.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip (pictured) said: 'We are committed to undertaking the work necessary to identify the underlying causes of disproportionality and, where it falls within our remit, to address those causes.'
Read the SRA's full response.