The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has ordered a solicitor who provided inaccurate explanations to the Legal Aid Agency for late payment claims to be struck off the roll despite 14 ‘impressive’ testimonials, including from three members of the judiciary.
The tribunal said it was clear that Mark Saunders, admitted in 1994, a former partner at Newcastle upon Tyne firm Singleton Winn Saunders, 'remained highly regarded’ and 'appeared to be someone whom other solicitors regarded as a credit to the profession’.
Between January 2013 and January 2015, Saunders was alleged to have knowingly prepared and signed costs claim forms bearing incorrect dates for submission to the agency. Between November 2011 and January 2015 he was alleged to have created and sent correspondence which provided ‘untrue’ information to the agency, to support payment claims submitted outside the permitted timeframe.
The tribunal’s judgment states that Saunders admitted the allegations.
The matter came to light when, in April 2015, the firm dismissed its office manager, ‘DC’, for gross misconduct. In the course of investigations, DC made allegations against Saunders.
On 29 April 2015 the firm submitted a report to the Solicitors Regulation Authority of allegations of professional misconduct against Saunders regarding payment claims from the LAA. On 30 April 2015 Saunders himself reported matters to the SRA, admitting that the explanations he had given to the agency for the late claims were incorrect.
Saunders, who resigned as an assistant coroner when his misconduct came to light, left the firm on 29 July 2016. He then worked as an assistant solicitor at criminal defence firm Crowe Humble Wesencraft. Saunders’ role was confined to advocacy and running files.
Crowe Humble Wesencraft senior partner John Douglas Wesencraft told the tribunal that the firm employed Saunders 'as he was a superb advocate whose work had been impressive since he joined’. Wesencraft found Saunders to be a 'man of the utmost integrity, who was willing to take on any work asked’.
Another Newcastle solicitor told the tribunal that the legal profession in the Newcastle, Teesside and Tyneside areas knew about Saunders’ misconduct because he had been 'candid about it’.
A QC told the tribunal that 'based on many years of observing colleagues, the respondent’s integrity stood him out as remarkable’.
The tribunal read written testimonials from three members of the judiciary, five barristers, three solicitors and another involved in legal services.
In mitigation, New Park Court Chambers’ Robert Smith QC said Saunders had not planned to deceive the agency.
Smith said Saunders recognised he had let down the firm by failing to process the claims for payment promptly. However he wanted the firm to be paid for the work it had done and did not want the agency to conclude that the firm was ‘in a mess’.
Saunders made ‘full and frank’ admissions to his partners immediately. The firm repaid the money received from the agency and Saunders reimbursed the firm.
The tribunal said it was clear from the ‘impressive’ testimonials’ that striking Saunders off the roll 'would result in a loss of capacity in the profession in the north-east criminal defence community’.
However, the tribunal added: 'Most solicitors had an unblemished professional history. Many solicitors, sadly, worked under conditions of professional and personal stress.
'Whilst his cooperation with the [SRA] was at the highest level, he had made full admissions and made good any financial loss, the respondent had not confessed to his misconduct until he realised it was about to be revealed by Mr DC.’
The tribunal ordered Saunders to be struck off the roll and pay costs of and incidental to the application and inquiry in the sum of £7,342.30.