Statement on Claire Matthews on behalf of the Junior Lawyers Division
This is a proportionate response which both takes into account the seriousness of the allegations against Ms Matthews while properly considering the impact of extreme and toxic working conditions on the mental health of Ms Matthews as a junior lawyer.
We have previously set out concerns that junior lawyers are arguably the most vulnerable lawyers in our profession due to their limited experience and welcome the SRA’s acceptance that their previous approach to enforcement was inappropriate given the mitigating factors in Ms Matthews’ case.
However, it is still a matter of great concern that Ms Matthews was only able to obtain this outcome through a combination of a legal team working pro bono, and a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs of appealing the decision.
In order to appeal, Ms Matthews had to obtain (and pay for) her own expert medical evidence.
It was only after this evidence was obtained that the appeal was allowed, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal's (SDT) finding and order against her were quashed and she was restored to the roll of solicitors.
After this, the SRA obtained its own expert medical evidence and concluded that a re-hearing of the allegations would not be in the public interest in light of that evidence.
The fact that the SRA did not obtain its own medical evidence in the first instance or agree to instruct an expert jointly on the basis that the SRA met the expert’s costs, meant that Ms Matthews was only able to obtain a fair outcome because she was able to crowd source legal funding.
While no order to costs has been made, there is to be no compensation to Ms Matthews for the damage to her reputation or mental health caused by the SRA’s process.
It cannot be the case moving forward that junior lawyers are only able to access a fair process through the generosity of strangers.
The JLD hopes that this outcome indicates a shift of approach for the SRA going forward.
In the SRA’s guidance, they have indicated that there may be circumstances where it is appropriate and helpful to consider instruction of a joint expert.
It is anticipated that this discretion will be utilised in situations similar to Ms Matthews' case where medical evidence is unaffordable by the individual being investigated, now that the SRA has recognised the importance of expert evidence where a junior lawyer’s health has been detrimentally and substantially affected by a toxic working environment.
When faced with an investigation by the SRA, junior lawyers are likely to face the added challenge of funding adequate legal representation for the defence of SRA investigations and prosecutions before the SDT (an issue compounded by the lack of insurance cover for junior lawyers), and the discretion for the SRA to meet the costs of expert evidence in suitable cases is one step towards levelling the playing field and ensuring that junior lawyers are not unfairly penalised by their lack of resources.
We encourage any junior lawyers who are being investigated by the SRA and wish to raise health issues to read this guidance and to discuss instructing a joint expert with the SRA at the beginning of their case.
The views expressed in this letter are those of the Junior Lawyers Division and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Law Society of England and Wales or any other organisation unless stated.