Stressful working conditions can never be an excuse for solicitors to be tempted towards dishonesty, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has told the High Court.
Representing the regulator, Chloe Carpenter from Fountain Court Chambers yesterday urged the court to strike off a trio of solicitors found dishonest by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal - but reprieved from strike-off.
The third of those cases involved corporate lawyer Peter Naylor, who sent five misleading emails to a client while working as an associate at national firm TLT.
The tribunal had heard that Naylor felt ‘broken’ by his workload and was described by a relative as a 'zombie' due to pressure building up over several months. Deciding on sanction, the tribunal ordered a suspended suspension on the basis that his mental ill health was an exceptional circumstance.
But Carpenter told the court that Naylor's disorder had made no difference to his ability to differentiate right and wrong.
'[Naylor's health] doesn’t affect the harm to the public at all. The harm is caused by having a dishonest solicitor on the roll. It doesn’t affect the risk to the public,' she said. 'There is nothing in the medical evidence that suggests a person suffering from it should have a propensity to be dishonest. It would be understandable if they made a negligent mistake but there is no reason someone should act dishonestly over a three-month period. It doesn’t impinge on the reaction.
'It doesn’t protect the public properly that a solicitor who understands what he is doing, but suffers from stress, is considered to have exceptional circumstances.'
Carpenter said that, as a highly trained individual, Naylor knew he could seek medical help or stop working. He did bring up his workload with the firm before sending the emails, and was sent on secondment to ease his workload, but the court heard he did not raise any issues again.
She added: 'If solicitors are suffering from stress there are legal and other remedies available to them. What they can’t do is act dishonestly and expect to be treated leniently.'
Carpenter insisted that Naylor was not ‘fobbing off’ the client, adding: 'That might be saying ‘yes I’ll get round to it’. That is not what happened here. He sent five emails stating he had done things he hadn’t done.'
Following the tribunal ruling in February, TLT said it managed the matter to ensure no negative impact for the client involved and had supported Naylor from the moment the firm became aware of the issue.
Naylor, who now practises as an in-house lawyer at his seconded workplace, is set to give his submissions tomorrow.
Earlier in the day the court heard submissions for the SRA in the cases of Sovani James, a former McMillan Williams solicitor who backdated documents, and of London solicitor Esteddar Macgregor, who was found to be dishonest over her firm's handling of legal aid invoices. The hearing continues.