In an appeal against a decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, it was held that the Tribunal had been entitled to strike a solicitor off the roll in respect of his "abdication of responsibility".
The case concerned a solicitor ("W") who had practised as a sole practitioner for over 30 years and had also been a deputy district judge for 14 years. A complaint against him was reported to the Law Society by a client, a bank which had instructed W to register a charge (or security) in its favour. W had failed to carry out this instruction and subsequently failed to deal with 11 letters from the bank requesting a return of title deeds. The Law Society referred the matter to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The scope of the case the Tribunal eventually dealt with had however broadened somewhat by the time the hearing took place. W had become bankrupt in the meantime and his practice certificate was accordingly suspended. Despite assurances to the Law Society to the contrary, W had failed to advise a number of clients that he had been suspended from practice, with consequences varying in severity. Furthermore, investigation into W's business accounts by the Law Society had revealed several inadequacies and breaches of the Solicitors' Accounts Rules.
The Tribunal found the complaint against W proved and applied the highest sanction of erasure, stating that, whilst there was no finding of dishonesty on W's part, he had fallen short of the standards of integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of a solicitor. The Tribunal also considered that W had failed to deal with the Law Society in a proper manner and to demonstrate sufficient compliance with the relevant rules. W appealed.
The Appeal Court required to determine whether the penalty imposed by the Tribunal was excessive. Interestingly, issues relating to "reputation" were relied on by both the Appellant and Respondents in support of their respective positions, when setting out their arguments on the principle of proportionality. Whereas the Appellant pointed to years of unblemished practice as a solicitor in support of his argument that the penalty applied by the Tribunal was too severe, the Respondents maintained that W had damaged the good reputation of solicitors generally and argued that it was only by demanding the highest standards from its members that the profession could retain its good reputation. The Appeal Court was persuaded by the Respondents' position, and whilst recognising that the penalty imposed by the Tribunal was severe, it concluded that the decision was neither harsh nor excessive.
This case is interesting for a number of reasons. From the professional's perspective, the Tribunal's dim view of the way W had dealt with the Law Society is a reminder of the possible adverse impact that even minor failures in compliance with disciplinary procedures can have on the outcome of the process. More importantly, however, the case demonstrates the limitations on the use of mitigating evidence in cases where the complaint is of a serious nature, and highlights that "good reputation" can work both ways when considering proportionality of sanction.