Mental Health problems in the legal profession- Does the SRA sufficiently recognise the pressures on lawyers?
The Solicitor Regulation Authority regulates solicitors’ firms and individuals, setting the minimum professional standards that solicitors must adhere to and investigates alleged failures and defaults.
Saunders Law is a longstanding member of the Solicitors Assistance Scheme which helps solicitors being investigated or disciplined by the SRA, or prosecuted by them at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT)
The SRA has power to impose the following outcomes of their investigations into a solicitor:
- Casework decision
- Letter of advice
- Finding and warning
- Financial penalty
- Referral to the SDT
If a matter is referred to the SDT and the SDT make a preliminary decision that there is a case to answer, a full hearing will take place. The Tribunal has the power to order the following:
- the striking off the Roll of the name of the solicitor to whom the application or complaint relates;
- the suspension of that solicitor from practice indefinitely or for a specified period;
- fine(s) to be imposed, without financial limit and forfeit to Her Majesty;
- the exclusion of a solicitor from legal aid work (either permanently or for a specified period);
- the determination of a solicitor's indefinite period of suspension from practice;
- the restoration to the Roll of the name of a former solicitor whose name has been struck off the Roll and to whom the application relates;
- in the case of a former solicitor whose name has been removed from the Roll, a direction prohibiting the restoration of his name to the Roll except by order of the Tribunal;
- the payment by any party of costs or a contribution towards costs of such amount as the Tribunal may consider reasonable.
Given the intensity and pressure legal practice often brings with it, should more consideration be given to an individual’s mental health and the impact of poor management by the firm can have?
Claire Matthews was struck off in March 2020 for an alleged dishonest cover up that followed her having left a locked bag of confidential papers on a train. Ms Matthews was unrepresented at the hearing and has since sought representation from a pro bono legal team, which ran a crowd-funding campaign, and persuaded the SRA to re-hear matters.
A huge factor in Ms Matthews case was her mental health at the time of the alleged professional misconduct. Although this was raised at the initial hearing, no medical evidence was then heard.
There are early signs of a softening of attitude by the SDT. In October 2020, the SDT found Susan Orton acted dishonestly but made a rare decision not to strike her off and instead suspended her, finding that there were exceptional circumstances which contributed to her conduct.
Ms Orton had acted in a moment of sheer panic after realising that neither she nor her client attended a planned preliminary case hearing. It was reported that Ms Orton had suffered panic attacks since childhood and was diagnosed with a mental health condition and her representative made the following comments:
“The nature of this dishonesty was a rabbit in the headlights by a lady suffering a serious illness that she had no idea she was suffering from”.
“She is a very positive member of society and a lady of high intelligence with a great deal to offer. She can have some kind of future in the law and in the right environment does not present a risk”.
The SDT decided that although she acted dishonestly, all the factors suggested her mental ill-health represented exceptional circumstances which warranted a suspension, as against ending her career.
In 2018, The SDT recognised in the case Of Savani James the part a firm may play in misconduct by a Junior solicitor, holding -
“The root cause of the Respondent’s misconduct, including the allegations of dishonesty, was the combination of the culture of the Firm in terms of pressures placed on junior solicitors and her mental ill-health arising from the pressures of work allied with difficult personal circumstances.”
However, this decision has since been appealed by the SRA and overruled by the High Court and Sovani James was removed from the roll. In his judgment, Lord Justice Flaux ruled that a ‘toxic and uncaring’ culture in the firm was an explanation for her dishonesty - but not an excuse.
Saunders Law are dedicated to representing Solicitors who are facing investigation by the SRA or seeking representation at a SDT hearing. We continue to press the SRA and SDT to acknowledge the impact mental health and a toxic working environment may have, and properly take them into consideration in disciplinary proceedings.
If you are being investigated by the SRA or need representation at a SDT hearing, please contact our Regulatory department on 0207 632 4300 or click the Make An Enquiry button above and we would be happy to discuss your matter with you.