A junior solicitor who tried to cover up her mistake concerning a missed hearing has been found to have acted dishonestly. But the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal today made the unusual decision not to strike off Susan Helen Orton, finding that exceptional circumstances contributed to her conduct. She has instead been suspended.
The tribunal heard this week that Orton had suffered panic attacks since childhood and was diagnosed with a mental health condition after the incident in August 2018. These details could be reported only after the tribunal’s decision, under reporting restrictions to ensure she was able to give evidence. Orton, formerly with Cheltenham firm BPE Solicitors, had submitted in her testimony that she suffered a debilitating panic attack after being told her mistake had caused a client to miss a preliminary hearing of the Employment Tribunal.
Experiencing what she called a ‘brain fade’, Orton found a notification document in the paper file and put two copies in separate confidential waste bins in full view of the rest of the office. This was witnessed by one of the firm’s secretaries.
The tribunal cleared her of dishonesty over this act, but found she acted dishonestly in an email to the Employment Tribunal and in a meeting with her bosses, during which she denied having seen notification of the hearing.
In mitigation, Orton’s representative Geoffrey Williams QC, of Farrar’s Building, said his client had a fear of making mistakes and described this whole incident, which lasted less than a day, as an ‘aberration’ in the otherwise unblemished career of a hard-working solicitor.
He stressed the tribunal was not obliged to make a strike-off order based on actions which were reactive rather than proactive. Since the incident, which led to her dismissal, Orton had applied for 53 posts without getting an interview because of these ongoing proceedings. In the meantime she had volunteered with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and two other charities.
‘The nature of this dishonesty was a rabbit in the headlights by a lady suffering a serious illness that she had no idea she was suffering from,’ he said. ‘She is a very positive member of society and a lady of high intelligence with a great deal to offer. She can have some kind of future in the law and in the right environment does not present a risk.’
The tribunal said Orton would have been suspended for two and a half years, but her time out of work had effectively accounted for two of those. She will have several conditions on her practising certificate when she returns, including regular health checks. She must also pay £20,000 in costs. The tribunal will publish its full reasons for the decision in around seven weeks.