Lawyers are offering their services pro bono to help a struck-off junior solicitor if she wants to make an appeal – but they need to find her first.
The Gazette has been approached by several firms and barristers saying they want to join any appeal that might be made by former Capsticks solicitor Claire Matthews.
She had been qualified for less than a year when she left a suitcase with important documents on a train. She then lied to colleagues when they asked where it was, saying she had left it at home. When she came clean a week after losing it, she said the briefcase had been left on a train that morning.
Representing herself in the tribunal, Matthews had asked to be allowed to continue her career, pleading that she was ‘overcome by uncontrollable fear, anxiety and panic’ in the days following her initial mistake. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal banned her from the profession, having found she acted dishonestly by seeking to conceal the loss from colleagues by giving them untrue information.
The story has provoked widespread concern about the sanction made against Matthews and the process which led to that decision. The SRA was represented at the tribunal by a barrister instructed by international firm Fieldfisher, with the regulator claiming for £55,000 in costs following the decision (this was downgraded to £10,000 by the tribunal, taking on board that Matthews now earns £9 an hour in a temporary call centre job).
A number of lawyers, including one QC, have contacted the Gazette saying they would be prepared to work for free to help Matthews with an appeal, if she chose to make one. Many more barristers and solicitors have said on social media they would be prepared to help any challenge against the tribunal decision.
One firm has lined up preliminary advice from a barrister and said it was particularly concerned that Matthews had not been represented.
The Gazette understands that another chambers has made contact with Capsticks, opposing counsel and the SRA to ask for them to pass on its contact details to her.
Attempts to trace Matthews, who is in her early 30s and was travelling home to Cheltenham at the time she lost the briefcase, through social media have so far proved fruitless.
It is, of course, possible that Matthews may not wish to appeal, but time is running out if she does: appeals are usually made within 21 days of the ruling being published.
The response from sections of the profession to this ruling follows similar concern expressed in recent years at the tribunal and SRA’s approach to handling young solicitors who have said that mental health issues contributed to their misconduct. The approach appears to have hardened since November 2018, when the High Court overturned the tribunal’s decision to hand former junior solicitor Sovani James a two-year suspension (which was itself suspended).
In his judgment, Lord Justice Flaux concluded: ‘It may be that pressure of work or an aggressive, uncaring workplace could excuse carelessness by a solicitor or a lapse of concentration or making a mistake, but dishonesty of any kind is a completely different and more serious matter.’