Dishonesty and lack of integrity cannot be treated as synonymous for the purposes of assessing a solicitor’s conduct, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
In Wingate & Anor v The Solicitors Regulation Authority, Lord Justice Jackson concluded that integrity for solicitors was about more than simply acting honestly. Instead, professional people should have a duty to adhere to higher moral standards not only in what they say but what they do.
His conclusion formed the basis of two appeals handled together concerning the prosecution of solicitors by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
In the first, the court dismissed an appeal from former law firm manager David Wingate who had accepted a £900,000 loan from the now-notorious Axiom Fund. The High Court had remitted the case to the SDT after finding the funding agreement Wingate made was a ‘complete sham’ and he had acted without integrity. He was subsequently suspended for three months, and Jackson’s ruling means that sanction is expected to stand.
Wingate’s partner Steven Evans, who was fined £12,000, also challenged the remittance decision in the Court of Appeal. He was successful on some grounds, and his case will be returned to the SDT.
In a separate case, involving construction law specialist John Malins, the SRA appealed the judgment of Mr Justice Mostyn, who had ordered a retrial of the solicitor found to have backdated an insurance document and sent it to another firm. Malins, who worked for with national firm Bond Dickinson, was struck off in April 2016.
Mostyn had said the distinction between dishonesty and a lack of integrity was virtually impossible to understand and led to confusion in SDT proceedings against Malins.
Setting aside that ruling, Jackson agreed the judge had erred in holding that integrity in SRA principles had the same meaning as honesty. While agreeing that solicitors are not required to be ‘paragons of virtue’, he said integrity was ’useful shorthand’ for the higher standards expected of professional people.
‘The professions have a privileged and trusted role in society. In return they are required to live up to their own professional standards,’ said Jackson. ‘Integrity connotes adherence to the ethical standards of one’s own profession. That involves more than mere honesty… a professional person is expected to be even more scrupulous about accuracy than a member of the general public in daily discourse.’
Malins’ strike-off will now become effective again and he must also pay £19,000 costs of the original SDT hearing.
John Gould, a senior partner at London firm Russell-Cooke LLP and author of the Law of Legal Services, said the Court of Appeal has provided a definitive approach to integrity for professionals. ‘The High Court’s decision that lack of integrity and dishonesty are the same thing was wrong,' Gould said. 'The trust that a professional will behave with the high standard of integrity required of their profession is a fundamental public interest. It is not enough simply not to be a crook.’
On the Wingate and Evans appeals, Mr Gregory Treverton-Jones QC, instructed by WE Solicitors LLP, acted for both appellants. Richard Coleman QC, instructed by Russell-Cooke Solicitors, acted for the SRA.
On the Malins appeal, Richard Coleman QC and Chloe Carpenter, instructed by Russell-Cooke Solicitors, acted for the SRA. Fenella Morris QC, instructed by RadcliffesLeBrasseur Solicitors, acted for Malins.