The fine line of social commentary
A recently issued guidance note from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has sparked a very carefully worded debate about the fine balance of social media, personal comment and the implications a solicitor’s private opinions may have for their professional careers if they spill over into public forums.
The guidance includes reference to the appropriate conduct to be adhered to in practice and professional scenarios, which one would hope are adhered to out of general common sense and decency, but what seems to have prompted the publication is the section dealing with solicitors and their conduct outside of practice.
Although most solicitors do indeed uphold the professional standards expected of them there are times when the SRA has to intervene following complaints by members of the public. Given the potential sanctions, which include exclusion from practice as well as heavy costs and fines, it is of great importance that solicitors know how to avoid falling foul of the SRA when using social media.
One recent example which has featured in the Law Society Gazette was the case of Majid Mahmood who was fined £25,000, suspended from practice for 12 months and ordered to pay £9,500 in costs. His punishment was issued for posting offensive comments on Facebook about shooting ‘Zionists’ and blowing up the ‘chosen people’. To make matters worse Mr Mahmood went on to tell other users to ‘go and fuck yourself’ when it was suggested his comments would be reported to the SRA.
The comments were not made in any professional capacity, nor did Mr Mahmood explicitly state that as a solicitor his opinion did or should carry any additional gravity. However, a hyperlink to his name showed that his job title was a ‘senior solicitor’ with his then employer. The offending posts were removed as apparently was the entire Facebook account.
This case highlights the importance that the SRA and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal place on maintaining the integrity of the profession to such a high standard that solicitor’s private lives are also potentially subject to heavy scrutiny.
We do not in any way condone Mr Mahmood comments or the subsequent argument with those seeking to challenge him but it does raise the question as to where the line should be drawn in relation to both freedom of information and privacy & family life.
The rise of social media and the ease with which we access it on a daily basis means that it is now easier than ever to express our opinions, whether popular or not. Although Mr Mahmood was not hiding behind a pseudonym or anonymity there are many who do and many who use that cloak to make comments and threats even more offensive than those referred to here.
In its guidance, the SRA reminds solicitors that the principles that have to be upheld outside practice are the administration of justice, public trust and integrity. We would all do well to abide by the recommendation to conduct ourselves with integrity rather than perpetuating online abuse which quite frankly the majority of society would not tolerate, permit or spout in the real world.
The legal profession is one which most of its members are proud to be part of and who would not act contrary to the SRA guidance; issuing this guidance could be seen as somewhat draconian bearing in mind the many other issues the profession faces.