The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal was right to take account of the ‘vile’ working environment suffered by a solicitor who lied about a case, the High Court heard today.
Geoffrey Williams QC said the conditions experienced by junior lawyer Sovani James at south-east firm McMillan Williams helped explain why she created and backdated letters to give the impression a clinical negligence case was progressing. The deception lasted for 17 months and was discovered only once she left the firm in 2015.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has appealed the tribunal’s decision earlier this year to impose a suspended suspension, despite finding dishonesty. The regulator called for the court to strike off the solicitor and said that stress or illness could be grounds to justify a mistake or negligence - but not sustained dishonesty.
The court today heard that James was warned in an email in 2012 that she had recorded too few billable hours and would need to work up to 18 hours a day for 19 consecutive days to catch up her work. The firm, which publicly compared the performance of all junior lawyers through league tables, told her she should work through evenings, weekends and bank holidays to cover any shortfall.
The tribunal said a letter from managing partner Colum Smith had been ‘threatening and harassing in tone’ with the intention of frightening James into compliance. Sitting in the High Court today, Lord Justice Flaux said the way James was treated was ‘frankly abominable’ and described a ‘poisonous atmosphere’ in the firm.
The judge added: ‘[Her treatment] was dreadful. The letter from the senior partner was a complete disgrace.’
Williams told the court: ‘It is important to appreciate the facts: this was a young lady who, though not inexperienced as a solicitor, made an error on a case and then told a single lie about it, because she was afraid because of the particular circumstances that prevailed at the firm.’
Addressing the SRA’s appeal directly, Williams said the tribunal had taken everything into account and was clear in its reasoning to ‘come up with a decision the SRA didn’t like – that is not sufficient for this court to interfere’.
Representing the SRA, Chloe Carpenter of Fountain Court conceded dishonesty could take different forms, but said cases without any loss to clients did not necessarily require a more lenient sanction.
She submitted that the tribunal had heard mitigation but not found any exceptional circumstances, in the narrow definition of the word, to justify anything other than a strike-off.
She could find only a handful of suspended suspensions ordered by the tribunal in the last two years and warned that broadening the meaning of exceptional circumstances would make it difficult to ever strike off a solicitor found to have acted dishonestly. Simply imposing a suspended sanction did not maintain the purpose of protecting the public from risk, added Carpenter.
‘The tribunal did not say this was a unique case. There is nothing unique about a solicitor suffering from stress at work. It is very sad but it is a fact of life – these facts do not [excuse] a case of dishonesty over 17 months. [Solicitors] must be able to conduct themselves honestly whatever is going on in their personal lives or with their health. The reputation of the profession demands no less.’