The Treasury is missing out on millions of pounds in uncollected fines levied against solicitors guilty of serious misconduct.
A freedom of information request by the Gazette has revealed that the outstanding amount owed in unpaid fines from the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal was £2.6m at the end of the 206/17 financial year.
The SDT last year ordered fines against 51 solicitors, with the amount ranging from £1,000 to £40,000, although this year’s £250,000 fine levied against international firm White & Case suggested the tribunal is minded to set tougher financial penalties.
But the tribunal itself has no statutory role to play in fine enforcement, with that responsibility solely handled by the Treasury.
The freedom of information answer revealed that almost £2m was levied in total from solicitors from April 2012 to March 2017.
But the amounts collected varies significantly from year to year: in 2015/16 the Treasury collected just £182,000, while that figure jumped to £523,000 in 2016/17. Over the course of the past five years the government has collected £1.4m – still well short of the £2.6m that is outstanding.
The fgures are surprising given moves in recent years to take account of the financial circumstances of the individual before imposing a fine.
A Treasury spokesperson said the total amount of outstanding fines can vary due to different factors, including the number of fines imposed by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal or how many solicitors are repaying their fines in instalments.
He added: ‘There will always be an outstanding total amount due at any one time but we work to ensure all fines are paid back in full where possible. We take legal advice on investigation and other actions when solicitors declare they are unable to pay or default against agreed payment plans. This might include applications to court to recover money, including actions for bankruptcy.’
The SRA has argued for greater fining powers – currently it can fine up to £2,000 before the matter is sent to the SDT – but is understood to have little enthusiasm for taking tribunal fines in-house.
Iain Miller, regulatory solicitor at London firm Kingsley Napley, said it is time to ask why fines are not used to fund the regulatory system. ‘The justification currently is that the power to fine is a prerogative power and therefore any benefit accrues to the Crown,’ said Miller. ‘My understanding is that the FCA keep their fines so why are solicitors different?’