Witnessing signatures: solicitor struck off for false claim

Jessica Clay, partner at Kingsley Napley LLP, considers a real case where a solicitor found themselves in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for misconduct. Breaches of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Principles were alleged, including falsely claiming a signature had been witnessed when it had not.
A person signs a hard-copy document using a fountain pen. They wear a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie.

Falsifying information

A solicitor who falsely confirmed they witnessed a signature on a lease was struck off the roll.

The solicitor admitted that the witness was not actually present at the time, and the SDT found the allegation proved in full, including finding the solicitor to be dishonest.

Matters came to light when a dispute about the lease resulted in civil proceedings in the county court.

The SRA wrote to the solicitor seeking an explanation. The solicitor indicated they had been present when the lease was executed when that was not the case.

The document was returned to the solicitor, who signed and stamped it to say they had witnessed the signatures.

Seeking clarification, the SRA again wrote to the solicitor:

“I understand from your response that you witnessed [Mr], [Mr] and [Mr] sign the document. [Mr] was not present, but you spoke to him on the phone. After this, you understand that [Mr] signed the document separately in the presence of [Mr]. The document was then returned to you with four signatures on, and at that point you signed to say you had witnessed it.”

Although there was no legal requirement for the solicitor to witness the signatures, the wording “In the presence of…” gave the impression that the document was signed and witnessed in their presence.

In a written declaration to the SRA, the solicitor said:

“I confirm that I have no issues with the statements of the witnesses ... however that had I realised what was going on at the relevant time, I would not have conducted myself in the manner that I did. I can only attribute my failings to the medication and treatment I was receiving which led me to lose concentration.

“I fully accept that I am responsible for the alleged acts and that I should have taken the relevant steps to uphold my profession's dignity. However, I did not, at any relevant time; breach SRA rules.”

The SDT finding

By signing to confirm that the absent witness had signed in their presence, the solicitor had made a false statement.

In doing so, the solicitor was in breach of Principle 6 of SRA Principles 2011 (operational at the time), by failing to “behave in a way that maintained the trust the public placed in solicitors and the provision of legal services”.

The SDT noted that the solicitor affirmed on several occasions that they had signed the document at a time when the witness was not present.

The tribunal therefore found the allegation proved on the balance of probabilities.

Dishonesty was alleged as an aggravating feature of the misconduct and, under Principle 2 of the 2011 Principles, it was found that the solicitor did not “act with integrity”.

The SDT noted the solicitor’s statements about their health but, as they had provided no medical evidence, the tribunal was unable to attach any weight to the statements.

The solicitor also referred to their lack of knowledge of conveyancing matters. The tribunal found: “A solicitor did not need to be experienced to understand that they should not sign a document saying they had witnessed something when they had not actually done so.”

Although the solicitor co-operated with the SRA, the SDT said their admissions had been “less than open and frank, admitting on the one hand that [they] had acted as alleged but at the same time denying breaches of the SRA rules”.

The SDT said the public “would expect higher standards of solicitors” and was satisfied that the solicitor’s conduct would be considered dishonest by the standards of ordinary decent people.

The tribunal found the allegation of dishonesty proved.

Costs were assessed at £20,850 but reduced to £1,800 to reflect the solicitor’s means. The solicitor was struck off.

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.

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