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Open to attack

17 September 18

Your personal safety can be on the line in your professional work. We report on the levels of violent or threatening behaviour revealed by the 2018 Journal employment survey

by Peter Nicholson

One third of Scottish solicitors have experienced either actual physical violence or the threat of violence in connection with their professional work.

That is the headline finding from the 2018 Journal employment survey, if the 1,168 who completed it are representative of the profession.

This year’s survey set out to discover the risks faced by solicitors, in the wake of the serious attack on Glasgow solicitor Joe Shields in July. On the results, around one in eight (12%) have experienced actual violence, 32.6% have personally experienced threatening conduct and 27% threatening communications. Even allowing for an evident substantial overlap between these categories, a very large number of practitioners have been actually or potentially exposed to violence.

Crime count

Criminal defence, not surprisingly, is the highest-risk practice area: nearly 40% of solicitors here have been subjected to actual violence, and over 70% to threatening behaviour; of these, over 45% reported more than four incidents in the last five years. For family lawyers the figures were 25% violence and 54% threats, though a significant minority of incidents related to criminal defence work; and for prosecutors, 19% violence and 61% threats. “Accused persons towards prosecutors is common”, one respondent said of threatening conduct. Another reported: “The police and separately a man I was prosecuting have warned me that a third person intends to kill me.”

Litigation and dispute resolution generally is also higher risk than average. But even if arising from a small percentage of transactions, some 25 instances of threats of violence were reported from property work, 21 from executry or other private client, and 14 from local authority or public administration. As one solicitor in the last category put it: “I work in the public sector. Not all my dealings with the public are pleasant.”

Employment, commercial, regulatory, corporate, investment or financial services, and even judicial work were all among the sectors from which respondents reported threatening behaviour as arising, in addition to those specifically listed in the survey; and those doing business abroad face a whole new level of risk in some countries.

Aside from threats, acts committed include vandalising of cars, and even in one case a mural being painted on the wall of a house.

Professional misdemeanour

Sadly, it would be wrong to assume that the perpetrator is not a professional. While clients or their associates accounted for more than half the instances of actual violence, and over 45% of threats – and opponents or their associates committed one in seven assaults, and one in five threats – solicitors’ own colleagues, or those on the other side, stand accused of nearly one in seven assaults reported, and a slightly higher proportion of threats. It is likely that the findings overlap with experiences of sexual harassment: for women, around 20% of incidents involved a colleague; for men the figure was around 8%.

While the great majority of incidents (around 90%) take place either within the solicitor’s own office or in a court or tribunal environment, other locations included the street or shops near to court; also care homes or hospitals, site visits, train travel, or even at a dinner event, concert or in the solicitor’s own home.

Only a minority of incidents were however reported to the police: 20% of assaults, 12.5% of incidents of threatening behaviour and 14.5% of threatening communications. Notably, women appear to be somewhat less likely to report than men. The figures were only slightly higher for criminal defence solicitors. The survey did not explore the reasons for not reporting.

Do people believe their employers take the issue seriously? Only 53% overall, and only 37% of defence lawyers, think there are procedures and policies in place to protect them, to a “great” or “reasonable” extent. “To a minimal extent” or “Not at all” scored almost 25% between them; the rest were “Don’t know” or “Not applicable”.

Society response

Commenting on the figures, Alison Atack, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “The findings of the Journal survey make for alarming reading. Solicitors help people, often at extremely difficult times in their lives, and it’s vital that they feel safe and secure while carrying out their professional duties.

“It’s an issue that we must take extremely seriously – there should be no tolerance of any threat of violence towards our members and others working within the legal sector. Our next steps will be to examine what we can do to reduce the impact of violence in solicitors’ and accredited paralegals’ workplaces and also look at how we might improve reporting. We intend to engage with our members, employers, the courts and other key stakeholders following publication of these findings and establish what action we should take to tackle this issue and support our members.”

Findings on other topics covered by the survey will be reported in the October Journal.

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