There has always been provision to keep solicitors in the profession despite a finding of dishonesty. If the individual can show exceptional circumstances before the disciplinary tribunal they may – very occasionally – be allowed to continue in practice.
But such a conclusion is rare, and this week’s decision by the tribunal to show mercy to Sovani Ramona James feels like a line in the sand.
James was a then-junior solicitor under almost intolerable pressure: far from home, not long-qualified and struggling with her workload, she clearly needed support and understanding from her employer, south-east firm McMillan Williams. Instead she received what was described as a ‘threatening’ letter about her performance from the boss, while her superiors appeared not to spot the visible signs that she was not coping.
When a case was not progressed as it should have been, her response was to cover up mistakes rather than come clean. Disciplinary action was inevitable, but the SDT’s suspended ban was not, and members of the tribunal should be credited for a compassionate and measured response to a young woman’s plight.
The issue of junior lawyers coming under pressure from firms being squeezed now seems endemic within the profession. Clients want more for less, governments slash fees and regulators expect compliance at all times.
Something has to give, and readers’ response to James’ story shows this is a much wider problem than one firm.
But we must beware giving any impression that dishonesty is now considered a reasonable or justifiable response to difficult working conditions. James deserves her reprieve, but other solicitors – and of course the public – must not assume they can repeat her actions and always expect to stay in practice.
‘Dishonesty equals strike off’ is an arbitrary approach, but at least it leaves no grey areas. Once the profession appears to accept that lying is an unfortunate by-product of a difficult working environment, that is a slippery slope. The profession lives and dies by its rigid and rigorous adherence to high standards: the concept of a ‘lesser’ form of dishonesty is probably right, but is nonetheless dangerous.
It will be intriguing to see how the tribunal treats the next young solicitor who pleads working conditions in mitigation. Compassion must be applauded, but dishonesty must never be something we are comfortable with.