Honesty and Integrity

When I applied for admission to the roll of solicitors in 1974 it was a requirement that applicants be interviewed by a panel of the Law Society. At my interview I was asked what the two most important qualities were of a solicitor. I replied that I thought honesty and integrity were the most important qualities. The panel asked me what was the difference between honesty and integrity.

I replied that honesty was a simple concept of being honest, that is to say truthful particularly in financial matters. Integrity, I thought, was a behavioural quality. One could be honest but act without integrity which involves acting to high moral standards in the practice of law.

The question I was asked now troubled the senior courts. In a recent case involving solicitors the High Court concluded that there was no distinction between honesty and integrity. On appeal the court decided that there was a distinction and that “integrity connotes adherence to ethical standards of one’s own profession and that involves more than mere honesty”.

It is an important distinction because lawyers are expected to be more scrupulous, particularly about accuracy, than members of the public; the public are entitled to expect that lawyers, however hard they fight for their clients, should act with integrity, which dictionaries define as a quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

I think that most lawyers understand and act with integrity. That, of course, raises the question of whether the laws that lawyers seek to enforce are based on strong moral principles; sadly in many cases they are not.

Humans need laws, good laws and laws based on moral principles, in order to be able to live together safely and in harmony. Laws that are not based on moral principles are often held by society in contempt and people seek to avoid the consequences of bad laws. We need our legislators to consider moral principles when enacting laws.

2 Responses

  1. Really insightful article Robert. I have a feeling most practicing lawyers start with your basis of honesty and act with integrity. Somehow and somewhere down the line other ambiguous factors ‘shade’ this moral fabric. At least, that has been my personal experience!

  2. Honesty and integrity are useless defences against religious or cultural fascism.

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