The Solicitors Regulation Authority will appeal to the High Court to ask for a lawyer found to be dishonest to face a stiffer penalty. The Gazette understands the regulator will urge the court to prevent Sovani James from practising, after she was given a suspended ban by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal last month.
The case is likely to clarify the position surrounding solicitors who have cited mental health factors when mitigating for their misconduct.
James was a junior lawyer at south east firm McMillan Williams when she backdated letters for opponents and medical experts to give the impression that a clinical negligence case was progressing, the tribunal found. It opted to allow her to continue in practice after hearing the atmosphere at her firm meant she was ‘terrified’ of admitting mistakes. Faced with what was described as a ‘threatening’ letter from the firm’s managing partner, colleagues said James lost a significant amount of weight during the period in question, her hair fell out in clumps and she would break down in tears.
In its judgment, the tribunal said: ‘Pressures suffered by management were passed down to the fee earning team who must have felt that they were carrying the weight of the world on their junior shoulders.’
But the SRA is understood to believe the sanction was too lenient and James should face at least a period of suspension. According to the tribunal, since leaving McMillan Williams in 2015 she moved closer to home and has worked for almost three years at The Roland Partnership in Chester.
The regulator is likely to point the court to the fact her misconduct took place over 17 months between September 2013 and January 2015. It will argue that dishonesty was repeated and – having been qualified for three years at the start of the period – she should have known her obligations.
At the tribunal, the SRA had urged the tribunal to focus on what James had done rather than her subsequent behaviour, and consider especially that she continued to deny several allegations throughout the disciplinary process.
The case gained widespread attention for highlighting pressures on solicitors, particularly at a junior level, with one legal charity using James’ example to call for firms to do more to support vulnerable staff.
Since the James ruling, the tribunal has imposed suspended bans against two other solicitors. Daniel Smith, 35, a former associate at global firm Eversheds, was allowed to continue in practice despite fabricating an email and trying to cover it up when questioned by senior members of his firm. His culpability was reduced due to him suffering a medical condition that impaired his judgement.
Peter Naylor, 35, a corporate lawyer formerly with TLT, was also given a suspended ban after misleading a client into thinking a matter was progressing. He recounted feeling ‘broken’ by an incessant workload and found his health issues to be an exceptional circumstance.