The High Court has overturned a decision to strike off a solicitor on the basis he had no chance to defend himself against a dishonesty allegation.
Peter Rhys Williams, 61, was banned in December 2016 for his role in advising a client on a property sale. He was found by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal to have acted dishonestly and without integrity in hiding money made from a property sale from a mortgage lender.
He appealed that decision and the order to pay prosecution costs of £195,000.
Mrs Justice Carr, sitting in the High Court (Administrative Court) in Williams v Solicitors Regulation Authority, found ‘serious procedural irregularity’ in the dishonesty finding.
Williams said no separate and independent case of dishonesty representation was ever pleaded or put, and it was not open to the tribunal to make the findings it did.
Carr noted that the solicitor, a specialist in agriculture law, was not cross-examined on this issue, an oversight which the Solicitors Regulation Authority, prosecuting the case, had admitted.
The judge added: ‘There was ambiguity in the pleaded case. In all the circumstances, it was necessary for Mr Williams to be challenged directly on the point so that his evidence could be tested properly before a finding of dishonesty could be made. The tribunal could not fairly find him dishonest without the most careful consideration of what he said in his defence.’
Carr dismissed the appeal against the finding of a lack of integrity and invited the parties to make representations for how they wanted to proceed.
She also dismissed Williams’ allegation of judicial plagiarism over what was described as the ‘cut and paste’ nature of the tribunal’s written judgment. He argued that the document was similar in its wording to an entirely separate ruling, saying this did ‘serious damage’ to the reputation of the SDT, but the judge said it was ‘unobjectionable’ as long as it reflected the tribunal’s views.
Equally, she rejected complaints about the tribunal clerk drafting detailed findings, saying there was nothing to prevent it in the rules and it was up to the tribunal to decide the clerk’s duties.
In a short addition, Sir Brian Leveson reflected on the definition of integrity and dishonesty, disagreeing with a ruling in April that the two were synonymous.
He said: ‘Honesty - ie a lack of dishonesty - is a base standard which society requires everyone to meet. Professional standards, however, rightly impose on those who aspire to them a higher obligation to demonstrate integrity in all of their work. There is a real difference between them.’