The representative body for recently-qualified lawyers has said prosecuted individuals should never again have to rely on the begging bowl to clear their name.

In a statement issued following the decision to drop the case against former Capsticks solicitor Claire Matthews, the Junior Lawyers Division expressed its hope that the outcome indicates a ‘shift of approach’ for the SRA.

In particular, the JLD noted that the regulator obtained its own medical evidence to assess whether Matthews had any issues with mental health at the time of the matter that resulted in her prosecution. The instructed expert appeared to support Matthews’ contention that she suffered ‘uncontrollable, fear, anxiety and panic’ when she left confidential documents on a train and spent six days trying to cover up the mistake.

The JLD said that Matthews was able to get a fair hearing – and ultimately gain the right to continue practising – only through pro bono lawyers and through crowdfunding to cover legal costs and medical reports.

‘While no order to costs has been made, there is to be no compensation to Ms Matthews for the damage to her reputation or mental health caused by the SRA’s process,’ said the group. ‘It cannot be the case moving forward that junior lawyers are only able to access a fair process through the generosity of strangers.’

The JLD said it expects the SRA to use its discretion more in future to consider instructing a joint expert where there are issues pleaded around mental health. This would particularly be the case in situations like that faced by Matthews where she could not afford to bring forward medical evidence.

‘When faced with an investigation by the SRA, junior lawyers are likely to face the added challenge of funding adequate legal representation for the defence of SRA investigations and prosecutions before the SDT (an issue compounded by the lack of insurance cover for junior lawyers), and the discretion for the SRA to meet the costs of expert evidence in suitable cases is one step towards levelling the playing field and ensuring that junior lawyers are not unfairly penalised by their lack of resources.’

The JLD has previously set out concerns that more should be done about working environments that may deter junior lawyers from being upfront about mistakes.

The SRA said in updated guidance in 2020 that it would consider whether to obtain its own expert evidence and – particularly in cases before the SDT – consider instructing a joint expert. The Matthews case appears to be one of the first times this new policy has come into practice.

 

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