Solicitors struggling to run their business within the rules are the most likely category of practitioner to appear before the disciplinary tribunal.
So says Timothy Smith, a new solicitor member of the tribunal, writing in the SDT’s newly published annual report.
Smith says common themes emerge from sitting in tribunal. ‘There are some who are simply unsuited to be solicitors due to moral defects,’ he says.
‘There are some who have exemplary records but then for reasons that they themselves cannot account for have completely breached their professional responsibilities. There is then a further, and perhaps a more common, category of solicitors who are competent lawyers but do not have the rounded set of skills to run a business.’
He adds: ‘Frequently small problems escalate. Such solicitors would do well to remember that an admission of wrongdoing, a request for help, and an attempt to put things right may save a professional career.’
The report shows more applications to the tribunal in comparison with previous years, with a small rise in the number of solicitors struck off.
The most common allegation in 2015, accounting for 29% of cases, related to a category headed as ‘failures’. This could include failures to account, failures to pay counsel fees, failures to respond to the SRA and failure to supervise staff. The proportion of allegations related to failures from September to December 2014 was 24%.
At the same time, the proportion of cases involving the misappropriation or improper use of client money has fallen, from 15% in 2014 to 10% last year.
The total number of applications to the SDT in 2015 was 140, an increase from 117 in 2014 and 95 in 2013. Last year, 56 solicitors were struck off the roll or removed from the register of foreign lawyers, up from 48 in 2014.
The administrative cost of running the tribunal has increased significantly over recent years, from £1.8m in 2011 to £2.8m in 2014. The budgeted figure for 2015 was £2.75m.
Last year featured two cases that ran to an unprecedented 16 days of hearings, with one further case running to 11 days. From September 2014 to December, the Solicitors Regulation Authority was awarded £2.5m in costs, of which £619,000 was withheld due to the solicitor’s financial situation.