The group representing lawyers at the start of their career has welcomed the decision not to strike off a junior found to have acted dishonestly.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal last week suspended Susan Orton for six months after finding that exceptional circumstances contributed to her conduct. She had been dishonest with her firm, Cheltenham practice BPE Solicitors, and with the employment tribunal about her knowledge of a document showing there had been notification of a missed hearing date.
The tribunal heard that Orton, who had been qualified for two years at the time, had suffered panic attacks after being informed of the initial mistake and was subsequently diagnosed with mental health conditions that contributed to her response.
The tribunal’s decision not to strike off the solicitor came following a number of cases in recent years where a junior lawyer has cited mental health issues as a factor in them acting dishonestly. These cases have invariably resulted in the individual being struck off.
The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society this week welcomed the Orton decision and said it was encouraging to see the tribunal giving greater weight to mental illness when making its decisions.
In a statement, the organisation said: ‘The JLD hopes the SDT continues to be as conscious of the significant impact of such issues in future determinations, and that the SRA takes note of the Orton outcome when considering whether to prosecute other junior lawyers in similar circumstances in the future.’
The JLD said some high-profile decisions to prosecute junior lawyers in recent years had failed to give sufficient recognition to the substantial impact of mental health issues on professionals. These decisions had particularly affected those new to the pressures of the legal sector, who faced the ‘harsh finality’ of being struck off.
The JLD said mental ill health is ‘rife’ at the junior end of the legal profession. A resilience and wellbeing survey conducted last year found that almost half (48%) had experienced problems with their mental health in the previous month. This is a significantly higher proportion than the quarter of the general public thought to have suffered at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year.
The full reasons for the tribunal’s Orton decision are likely to be published in around six weeks.