The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has rebuked the Solicitors Regulation Authority for giving the impression that it treats City lawyers more leniently than solicitors from smaller firms in prosecuting allegations of lack of integrity.
In a judgment published last week in a case between the SRA and Mark Gilbert, a former partner in the real estate division of City firm Addleshaw Goddard, it said the tribunal had been placed in ‘a most unsatisfactory position’ by the regulator.
Gilbert, who was admitted in 1978 and left Addleshaw in 2011, was accused of failing to act with integrity and behaving ‘in a manner that was likely to diminish the trust placed in him and in the legal profession by the public’ by allowing taxi bills and secretarial overtime to be billed to clients as photocopying or scanning charges.
He was also accused of failing to act in the best interests of his clients.
Gilbert admitted conduct which was likely to diminish the trust the public would place in him or the profession, but denied lack of integrity.
He told the tribunal that a typical day would run from 7-7.30 am to 10-10.30pm, during which he would make telephone calls or read documents in taxis which he used as mobile offices. He had allocated the fares to his clients ‘using a broad brush approach’. He apologised to the tribunal, the regulator and the profession for his behaviour, but said there had been no claims against him, or complaints from clients, in 36 years in the profession.
According to the judgment, in January last year the parties had applied to the tribunal to permit the SRA to withdraw the allegations of lack of integrity.
The SRA’s representative had told the tribunal ‘that it was neither proportionate nor in the public interest’ to pursue the allegation. The application was made in the context of proceedings against two other respondents being dealt with by a separate division of the tribunal.
Appearing for Gilbert, Hodge Malek QC said that to proceed differently against Gilbert would amount to an abusive process.
However the tribunal decided it needed to ‘hear more on this point’.
Ruling that it was ‘unfortunate’ the SRA had dealt with the case as it had, it said: ‘This was particularly so where the impression may be given to the profession and to the public that the applicant was willing to discontinue serious allegations against a City lawyer when it was not often willing to do so against solicitors from smaller firms.’
The tribunal noted there had been no allegation of dishonesty and the allegation of lack of integrity had not been proved. It was satisfied that Gilbert did not pose a risk to the public and that he would not repeat the misconduct. It ordered him to pay a fine of £20,000 and costs of £38,000.
Gilbert has 21 days to appeal.
Addleshaw Goddard said: ‘Mark Gilbert resigned from Addleshaw Goddard in April 2011, shortly after discrepancies in his personal expenses and disbursements had prompted an immediate and full investigation by the firm.
‘Addleshaw Goddard promptly alerted the SRA in connection with Mark Gilbert’s circumstances, and co-operated fully with the ensuing SRA investigation. The firm was not a party to the SDT hearing, nor was it asked to make representations.’
The SRA said that agreed outcomes ‘continue to be an important part of the regulatory framework’.