The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has lambasted the Solicitors Regulation Authority over a ‘deal of convenience’ struck with a solicitor just before a three-day hearing into her case last month.
The SRA had emailed the tribunal on the evening of 11 April to confirm it would offer no evidence of an allegation of dishonesty against Bernadette Teresa McDonald, owner of Liverpool firm BMD Law.
The original charges had included an allegation that she knowingly gave the SRA false information about the status of someone in the firm.
But the email confirmed McDonald was now prepared to admit a series of less serious allegations, and that the SRA would drop the 'dishonesty' element.
In an excoriating opening to its judgment, the tribunal said it was ‘baffled’ as to why the SRA had not tried to obtain a witness statement from the person in McDonald’s firm.
The tribunal said it was concerned that a deal had been struck less than 24 hours before the start of the hearing.
‘The [SRA] had stated it did not want to spend the profession’s money but that is the [SRA]’s role,’ said the tribunal. ‘If the allegations were untenable, when considering all the evidence in the round, this could and should have been established earlier. The situation reeked of a deal of convenience.’
The SDT goes on to say it was ‘appalled and dismayed’ that the SRA could raise an allegation of dishonesty and not pursue it sufficiently rigorously.
In a statement today, an SRA spokesman said an agreed outcome was the correct course of action, particularly given McDonald’s admissions.
‘Judgements are often made as cases reach trial and respondents engage with the detail of the allegations,’ he said. ‘Agreed outcomes have been used for a number of years. They can save both cost and time while providing appropriate public protection.
‘That is in everybody’s interests and we are disappointed the tribunal does not support the approach.’
McDonald was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £15,000 for a number of accounts rules and breaches. The tribunal also banned her from practising as a sole practitioner or owner of a law firm.
The SDT’s intervention in the McDonald case is the latest in a series of fractious incidents between it and the regulatory body.
In March the tribunal quashed an SRA decision to ban an immigration specialist, saying the adjudicator had failed to take account of all the evidence.
In January, SRA costs were slashed by £18,000 after what was described as an ‘excessive’ prosecution.
In the same month, the tribunal questioned why a retired sole practitioner was brought before a hearing, saying it had ‘serious doubts’ about the referral.