SDT hearings taking longer
More complex cases push up length and cost of proceedings
The number of cases before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal went down from 140 in 2015 to 133 last year but hearings took twice as long on average, with two cases lasting ten days.
The number of cases disposed of in half a day dropped from 28 to 18. Those taking a whole day rose 61 per cent from 45 to 74. Two-day hearings doubled from 13 to 26, as did four-day hearings '“ from three to six. The longest case took ten days. By comparison, one case was heard over 11 days in 2015, and two over 16 days.
Altogether, judges sat for 260 days in 2016, up 75 days from 2015 (185), according to the tribunal's latest annual report.
The increase in the length of proceedings was accompanied by a rise in associated costs. The budget initially approved for 2016 would have seen a rise in gross expenditure of more than £800,000, from £2,098,733 to £2,908,243, a difference of £809,510.
This included a contingency of £55,000 and a £45,784 provision to deal just with ABS appeals.
In anticipation of a rise in the number and complexity of cases, the SDT had budgeted remuneration increases of £143,909 for solicitor members and £50,530 for lay members. Staff costs including national insurance, pensions, and benefits were expected to go up by £472,471, jumping from £622,815 in 2015 to £1,095,286 in 2016.
Subject to a final audit expected to be published in June, the SDT now forecasts an actual overall spend of £2,416,250, which would represent an increase of £317,517 on 2015.
Of that total, actual staff costs will now stand at £701,417, including £236,685 for five new employees '“ an average of £47,337 each.
IT costs, including a new website, were initially budgeted at £134,500 but should come in at around £93,761.
Of the 133 cases decided, 76 resulted in strike off (57 per cent), 51 in a fine (38 per cent), and 26 in restrictions on practising certificates (20 per cent). Fines ranged from £1,000 to £40,000.
Costs awarded to the Solicitors Regulation Authority nearly doubled, rising from £1,710,941 in 2015 to £3,052, 656. However, SDT president and solicitor Ed Nally said the tribunal 'will not be afraid to challenge excessive costs when we observe them, nor to criticise hopeless or unrealistic arguments. This will apply equally whether they emanate from the respondent or the applicant.'
Only last month, the tribunal slashed the SRA's costs by half in the Shah case. The regulator had pursued a number of allegations unnecessarily and had unjustifiably spent nearly £10,000 on external representation when it could have used its own in-house advocates.
In related developments, tribunal clerk and chief executive Susan Humble also responded to the Legal Service Board's call on legal regulators, including the SDT, to publish annual costs statements. Humble said she's drawn to LSB chief executive Neil Buckley's attention the fact that the tribunal and its administrative services arm (SDTAL) already provide a full statement of costs.
'This statement has appeared in the organisation's published annual report for many years now. The SDTAL also files its annual accounts at Companies House each year. We are therefore well ahead of the game in terms of transparency,' she said.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal