A forensic investigator working on behalf of the SRA was ‘thoroughly unprepared’ to give evidence against a solicitor brought before the tribunal.
The regulator had charged Denise Davies, a solicitor for 35 years, with various breaches of its rules in relation to conveyancing work carried out while a partner at the Bedford office of east of England firm Woodfines.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found, based on her own submissions, that Davies incorrectly certified an ‘introduction certificate’ on a property purchase. But an allegation of dishonesty was found not proven and other allegations were thrown out altogether after the tribunal heavily criticised the investigation officer, referred to only as SC.
The tribunal heard SC had been employed by the SRA since 1996 and had completed around 300 investigations in that time. But his evidence was found to be ‘substantially inadequate’, to the extent that the tribunal could not be sure of the facts underlying the allegations.
The tribunal said his evidence was generic and not specific to the facts of the case. SC had not seen Davies’ responses to allegations put to her, and he made mistakes during an interview with Davies which led to her making an incorrect admission.
It was noted that SC even had to apologise that two paragraphs of his report were ‘misleading and inaccurate’ – an admission the tribunal said was ‘highly unusual’.
The tribunal said: [SC] did not acknowledge the responsibility incumbent upon him to bring fairness and independence to the investigation. The tribunal was extremely troubled by that in light of the reliance the [SRA] placed on his evidence, which appeared to unravel when tested.’
In contrast, Davies was found to have given ‘clear, persuasive and measured’ evidence. She remained ‘unshaken and retained her professional composure’ under cross-examination.
The SRA had alleged she acted in property transactions over seven years without conducting adequate due diligence on the clients or transaction funds. This allegation was found not proven, as was an allegation that she released client funds before obtaining validly executed mortgage deeds.
The tribunal gave Davies credit for accepting full responsibility for her error in judgement and said the likelihood of repetition was low. She had admitted her conduct lacked integrity, but there was no deception involved and this was an isolated incident during 35 years of unblemished practice. She was fined £1,500.
The SRA applied for £43,637 in costs, of which the tribunal ordered Davies to pay less than half. The tribunal reduced costs on the basis that inadequacies in the investigation were ‘wholly unsatisfactory’ and the 59.5 hours claimed for hearing preparation was not ‘reasonable or proportionate’.
The SRA declined to comment when approached by the Gazette.