Prosecution costs awarded to the SRA for cases coming before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal rose by 28% in the past year, it has been revealed.
The annual report of the SDT for the 2018 calendar year stated that solicitors appearing before the tribunal were ordered to pay around £3.45m to the regulator following the conclusion of their case. In 2017, respondents had been ordered to pay back £2.7m.
In the report, solicitor member Richard Hegarty said that hearings are now much longer and more likely to be contested, with the SRA and respondents often instructing leading counsel. Compared with 10 years ago – and spurred on by some adverse decisions of the administrative court where outcomes have been appealed – decisions now run to up to 80 pages, with much greater detail of both the proceedings and the decision-making process.
‘All this has meant that the costs to the parties have risen considerably,’ added Hegarty. ‘The tribunal members often take a sharp intake of breath when we are shown the costs schedule.’
In 2018, the tribunal struck off 80 solicitors brought before it, either following a contested hearing or an agreed outcome between the respondent and the SRA. This amounted to 32% of the total 248 orders made and was an increase from the 58 strike-offs ordered in 2017 (around 28% of the total).
The tribunal has decided to adopt a civil standard of proof, from the current criminal standard requiring cases to be proven beyond reasonable doubt – a change likely to come into force at the end of this year. But the figures suggest that the current standard of proof is a low barrier: in 2018 just seven cases resulted in no order, a costs only order or the case being dismissed (in 2017, 17 fell into these categories).
Geraldine Newbold, chief executive and clerk of the tribunal, acknowledges in her foreword that the SDT’s decisions often receive negative comment in the legal press.
But she added: ‘If the opportunity arises I would encourage you to come and observe a hearing (in full or part) and to make your own judgement as to how the SDT operates. What I hope you would observe is each case having a fair hearing, efficient and effective case management and evidence based decision-making.’
Newbold also confirmed that allegations of misconduct of a sexual nature by solicitors to be an increasing theme in cases brought by the SRA. Tribunal members and staff received training last November for dealing with vulnerable witnesses.