Right to prosecute junior solicitor with mental health issues, says SRA
The SRA has rejected an attack on its handling of a junior solicitor who was struck off after leaving sensitive documents on a train
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has rejected an attack on its handling of a junior solicitor who was struck off after leaving sensitive documents on a train and then lying.
However, the regulator said it takes seriously the issue of junior lawyers’ fear amid working in toxic environments – but said this was not an issue in the case.
Claire Matthews was only recently qualified and said she was “overcome by uncontrollable fear, anxiety and panic” when she realised her mistake.
She had only been with the firm a matter of weeks and also had a history of mental health problems.
Following the ruling, the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) wrote to the regulator reiterating its concerns that junior lawyers are not being adequately protected by the SRA’s approach to enforcement, “in that toxic working environments seemed to be ignored in favour of pursuing junior lawyers”.
The JLD said: “We do not believe that the SRA’s decision to prosecute was reasonable.”
It also said it was inconsistent with the ethos of last year’s #SupportingSolicitors mental health campaign in which the SRA took part.
“We do not have confidence in its approach to regulatory matters involving junior lawyers who have mental health issues and/or have been working in toxic environments”, the JLD added.
In his written response to the JLD, the SRA’s CEO Paul Philip, said: “Our enforcement procedures only come into play where things have already gone wrong at the firm or for an individual, and measures must be taken to protect the public.
“That said, we always seek to approach these matters sensitively and set out below some of the ways in which we do so.”
On the issue of prosecuting solicitors with mental health issues, he said: “We recognise the impact regulatory proceedings can have on the health of the individual concerned, and this is obviously an issue of great concern to us.
“We need to balance carefully the public interest against the interests of the individual.
“We are able to adapt our procedures, and apply reasonable adjustments, where appropriate – and to consider alternative means of disposal where an individual is not well enough to participate, or participate fully, in Tribunal proceedings.
“These considerations involve us taking case by case decisions, guided by the evidence, to ensure any action we take is both fair and proportionate, and protects the public interest.”
The SRA will shortly publish new guidance setting out current practice and processes where health issues are raised in regulatory proceedings.
In his letter Philip said it should provide “greater comfort and transparency for those who may be subject to regulatory procedures at a time when they are particularly vulnerable or unwell”.
Meanwhile, Claire Matthews is appealing the decision with a number regulatory law firms acting pro bono on her behalf.