Solicitor struck off for misleading clients

Linda Lee, consultant at Weightmans LLP, considers a case where a solicitor found themselves in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT). Alleged breaches included misleading clients about the progress of their matters and making untrue statements.
Two stressed clients sit across a desk from their solicitor. A white man with short dark hair and a beard is looking at paperwork with a concerned expression. His partner, a white woman with long, straight brown hair, looks similarly concerned.
Photograph: nortonrsx

Misleading clients

A solicitor who misled several clients about the progress of their matters was struck off the roll.

Over four years, the solicitor, who was a partner and compliance officer:

  • made statements to a client regarding lodging an injunction and a hearing date which were untrue and which they knew, or ought to have known, were misleading
  • advised clients that a leasehold extension had been obtained on their behalf, including providing a “tribunal-approved version” when there had not actually been any proceedings
  • gave repeated assurances in a grant of probate that matters were progressing when the process hadn’t started, and
  • mishandled an estate by failing to contact a deceased client’s ex-spouse about the sale of a property which they knew, or ought to have known, was jointly owned

After concerns were raised about the solicitor’s handling of the first matter, the firm asked the solicitor to resign from the partnership.

Three separate claims were later brought against the firm. One former client said the solicitor’s actions resulted in family animosity, stress and the breakdown of her marriage that had “destroyed her life”.

The firm has since had to close, primarily because of higher professional indemnity insurance (PII) premiums.

The SDT finding

The solicitor accepted they knowingly made untrue and misleading statements to clients and, by doing so, admitted their conduct was dishonest.

The only explanation given by the solicitor was that changes in the firm required them to take on probate and litigation matters, in addition to their regular workload of conveyancing matters.

The tribunal found there were breaches of either or both 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”

As well as the SRA Principles 2019:

  • Principle 2: “You act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors' profession and in legal services provided by authorised persons.”
  • Principle 4: “You act with honesty.”

The tribunal found:

“This very serious misconduct was made more egregious by the fact [they] occupied the role of the firm’s COLP and COFA and would have been trusted not only by clients not to mislead them but also by [their] firm to ensure that all systems, safeguards, rules and regulations were in place and were being followed.”

Given the admission of dishonesty, the SDT found the only appropriate and proportionate sanction was to strike the solicitor off the roll, accepting an agreed outcome in which dishonesty and recklessness were admitted.

All these instances led to professional negligence claims against the firm. The claims were settled before the firm had to close.

An agreed outcome approved by the SDT said the solicitor’s conduct adversely affected the firm and resulted in civil claims:

“The firm’s indemnity insurance increased to the extent that it was no longer financially viable to continue operating and was the primary reason for the firm’s closure.”

The solicitor also agreed an order for costs of £17,995.

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 SDT’s guidance note on sanctions (10th edition), states:

“Some of the most serious misconduct involves dishonesty, whether or not leading to criminal proceedings and criminal penalties. A finding that an allegation of dishonesty has been proved will almost invariably lead to striking off, save in exceptional circumstances (see Solicitors Regulation Authority v Sharma [2010] EWHC 2022 (Admin)).”

The SDT has unlimited powers to fine, suspend or strike off a solicitor where they are found to have behaved unethically.

Mitigating your risks

As a solicitor, you’re operating in a highly regulated and highly trained profession with robust consumer protections because the issues on which you advise clients and businesses can be complex and risky.

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