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, based on returns from 1,168 members of the profession.
This year’s survey, in the first exercise of its kind in Scotland, 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 if most in the three categories are the same solicitors, it shows that a very large number of practitioners have been actually or potentially exposed to violence.
Criminal defence lawyers are most at risk – nearly 40% have been subjected to actual violence, and over 70% to threatening behaviour. Of these, nearly half reported more than four incidents in the last five years.
But prosecutors are also targeted, 19% having experienced 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.”
Litigators generally, and family lawyers in particular, confirmed a higher than average level of risk, but incidents were reported from virtually every sector of the profession.
Clients or their associates accounted for more than half the instances of actual violence, and just under half of the threats, with a further one in five coming from the other side. But solicitors’ own colleagues, or those on the other side, stand accused of nearly one in seven incidents – perhaps a reflection of the level of sexual harassment reported last year, as women were more likely to be the target in incidents involving a colleague.
In response, the Society is making some initial recommendations that aim to improve solicitors and other legal professionals’ personal safety and build a “no tolerance” culture across the legal and justice sector to reduce violence and threatening behaviour. These include:
- improved reporting of incidents to the police;
- adopting a safety-first approach, such as using smartphone safety apps, personal alarms or a buddy system, particularly for sole practitioners;
- adoption of robust policies and procedures by employers to deal with violent or threatening behaviour;
- specialist training on risk awareness; and
- providing support for solicitors who are victims of violence.
Commenting on the figures, Alison Atack, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “I am extremely alarmed by the survey findings. People often turn to their solicitor for help and advice when they are going through very stressful and difficult times in their lives. It’s vital that solicitors, who have chosen a career in law because they want to help others, can feel safe and secure while carrying out their professional duties.
“There should be no tolerance of any threat of violence towards legal professionals, or indeed anyone providing a service to members of the public, something that has been highlighted recently by the proposed Scottish Parliament bill to protect retail workers. We are also aware the Scottish Government Justice Secretary intends to introduce measures to strengthen the rights of victims and witnesses of crime.
“We intend to take forward our initial recommendations, including working with other organisations in the legal sector, as a matter of urgency to try to minimise the risk of violence against people working in the legal sector.”