The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has turned down a further four plea bargains this year in addition to the Locke Lord case, it has emerged. The tribunal confirmed it has rejected five out of 27 agreed outcomes presented by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, after the regulator had agreed with offending practitioners what their sanction should be. The figure was revealed in a paper presented to the Legal Services Board.
The agreed outcomes procedure came into focus last month when it was revealed that the tribunal had turned down an agreed £250,000 fine for US firm Locke Lord. The tribunal suggested that the agreed penalty ‘did not reflect the seriousness of the matter’ and the firm was eventually fined £500,000 – a tribunal record.
Agreed outcomes are a relatively new development designed to address the spiralling costs of prosecutions, and are thought to have cut the equivalent of 90 sitting days this year.
A spokesman for the SRA said: ‘We take disciplinary action to protect high professional standards and deter future poor behaviour. Agreed outcomes can help achieve that fairly, effectively and quickly, while avoiding unnecessary costs.’
Regulatory lawyers have told the Gazette that they expect to see significant growth in the deployment of agreed outcomes.
Kingsley Napley partner Iain Miller said they are proving an effective way for the SRA to save on its budget and for everyone to get certainty: ‘My sense is that the SDT is less resistant than it was.’
Paul Bennett, a partner at north-west firm Aaron & Partners, said the process is evolving and the tribunal will inevitably continue to reject some agreements as the SRA learns from each case review.
Bennett said a recent agreement involving one solicitor client had resulted in the sitting time being cut from four days to just one.
He suggested the Locke Lord decision may be an outlier, as in most cases the SDT will encourage a reduced sanction based on mitigating factors.
‘The SDT is an independent tribunal and we are seeing it exercise the proper oversight that independence merits,’ Bennett added. ‘The profession should be celebrating this independence and the safeguard it provides.’
There is no suggestion of tension between the regulator and disciplinary body over agreed outcomes, but there is frustration at the timing of some SRA decisions. In the LSB board paper, the tribunal notes that planned sitting dates are lost due to agreements coming in late.