Save the date? Solicitor was struck off for instructing trainee to alter documents

Michelle Garlick, partner at Weightmans LLP, considers a real case where a solicitor found themselves in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT). Breaches of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Principles were alleged, involving instructing a trainee to alter documents.
A woman edits a document on a laptop

Providing false information

A solicitor who instructed a trainee to amend the date on a mortgage deed in a conveyancing transaction was struck off.

The solicitor’s firm acted for a property purchaser and had 21 days from completion to register the mortgage with Companies House.

The application was rejected because the filing fee was missing.

The trainee re-submitted the paperwork with the fee attached four days later, but this time it was rejected as being out of time.

The supervising solicitor told the trainee there was no need to apply to the court for an extension and that the date of the mortgage deed could be changed to a later date to bring the application back within the time limit.

The issue came to light when the trainee responded to a HM Land Registry query about the date on the mortgage deed and whether it was a true copy of the original.

The unnamed trainee, who gave evidence to the tribunal, asked if the action was acceptable and was told by the solicitor that it was “fine” and had been done before.

The trainee did not get the impression that the action was “dodgy” and trusted that the solicitor’s advice was sound.

The solicitor, formerly a partner, told the SDT they believed they were allowed to act in this way because they had been shown during their training contract at the firm how to “Tipp-ex out” errors on documents.

This was refuted by the solicitor’s former supervisor, who gave evidence denying that any such training or guidance on correcting errors post-execution was provided.

But the SDT found that even if the solicitor genuinely believed they had been taught to act in this way, it was “fundamentally implausible that any solicitor would believe such a course of action would be permissible” – particularly with seven years’ post-qualification experience.

The SDT finding

Noting that the solicitor admitted advising the trainee to alter the date on the document, the SRA asserted that there were breaches of either or both of the SRA Principles 2011:

  • Principle 2: “You must ... act with integrity”
  • Principle 6: “You must ... behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services”

Apologising to the tribunal, the solicitor said they felt they didn’t do anything wrong, and set out personal factors, including ill-health, that meant that they weren’t “thinking straight” at the time.

The tribunal found the solicitor had acted dishonestly and without integrity, adding there was no evidence that their state of mind should displace what a solicitor would think was acceptable.

Despite the character references provided on the solicitor’s behalf, the tribunal also found the breach of Principle 6 proven noting:

“the trust the public placed in solicitors depended on them ensuring that important legal documents were not altered, which created a misleading impression as to when they had been created.”

The solicitor was struck off and ordered to pay £22,200 costs.

Your ethical obligations

The case demonstrates the serious consequences of a breach of SRA Principles and highlights the overarching high-level standards of ethical behaviour expected by solicitors.

The proper supervision of work is a legal and professional requirement.

As a supervisor, solicitors are role-modelling not only good working practices but also high ethical standards.

Effective supervision of those delivering legal services plays a vital role in delivering good outcomes for clients, staff and third parties, and in maintaining public confidence in legal services.

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