There is a danger in being wrapped up in the emotion of the Sovani James case. Here was a clearly vulnerable young solicitor, inexperienced in professional terms, subject to unimaginable stress, making bad decisions. Her pursuit by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, some three years after her misconduct ended, has always seemed instinctively harsh and heavy-handed.
The problem with this narrative is it ignores the point that James’ misconduct was not an isolated incident: the deception that she was running a clinical negligence case adequately lasted 17 months and was uncovered only after she departed her firm.
It was not, to coin a phrase, a moment of madness but rather a sustained spell of dishonesty.
The judgment of Lord Justice Flaux makes clear that such a time period took this case well beyond the bounds of ‘exceptional circumstances’ that would be needed to save James’s career. Many solicitors will feel the same: one told me last week he could not understand why this issue was even up for debate, as dishonesty was always a line in the sand – a principle upon which the legal profession relies.
I maintain this stance ignores the realities of James’s circumstances and the risk she now poses to the public.
In a working environment described as ‘toxic’, where lawyers appeared scared to admit to any mistake let alone a serious one, is it any wonder this deception lasted so long? Could you say hand on heart you would have done differently? The fear and anxiety James appeared to suffer from was the same at the start as it would have been 17 months later – if anything that mental disintegration would only have worsened. It was not a moment of madness, but rather 18 months of apparent agony. Is it not possible to see that she lacked clarity of thought throughout? And if so, whether this was not repeated dishonesty but more like an outcome set in motion that James was not capable of stopping?
Perhaps, as a non-lawyer, I see beyond the lawyers’ mantra of dishonesty trumping all other considerations. I was not indoctrinated with the notion that lawyers must be held to a higher standard.
The SRA regulates in the interests of the public, first and foremost. Without making this into a sympathy contest, I would guess the majority of the public would see this ruling as unduly harsh.
James had moved on, physically and mentally. She had worked in another firm without a hint of trouble. She had a long list of people willing to vouch for her, and a self-professed determination to prove them right. This was, by all accounts, out of character.
Years on from an horrific episode in her life, she poses little or no further risk to the public. That, for me, should be the abiding factor in all of this. A career has ended when it doesn’t need to be.