SRA suspends junior solicitor over misleading email
The solicitor was also ordered to pay £5000 costs after 'moment of madness' during period of 'acute stress'
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has suspended a junior lawyer and ordered her to pay £5,000 in costs after she sent a misleading email in a “moment of madness” during a period of “acute stress”.
Dutton Gregory LLP Solicitors was instructed by a defendant employer in relation to a dispute. On 30 January 2019, Victoria Whelan, who was four months’ qualified, mistakenly sent an email attaching a bundle of medical evidence and an impact statement to a third party unrelated to the case.
After the claimant reported he had not received the expected email, Whelan realised her mistake and in a “moment of madness” advised the claimant that the email had been blocked by a firewall, due to the size of the attachment.
Whelan immediately took steps to retrieve the erroneously sent email and reported the incident to the firm. The firm notified the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who took no formal action.
The SRA heard that Whelan had been “juggling an extremely heavy workload” at the time of the incident and that she was also dealing with personal matters of a “distressing nature”. She was “utterly devastated” by her error, and apologised “sincerely and unreservedly”. Dutton Gregory supported Whelan throughout the SRA investigation and she remains employed by the firm.
The SRA and Whelan agreed a six-month suspension and payment of £5,000 costs. The SRA said that striking off would be a “disproportionate sanction” in this context – a view that is likely to be welcomed by the legal profession, following previous criticism within the industry that the SRA and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) have imposed sanctions on junior lawyers that many deemed unduly harsh.
Most notably, in March 2020, newly qualified solicitor Claire Matthews was struck off after leaving a briefcase of confidential documents on a train and then misleading colleagues to try and buy time to locate the briefcase. Matthews admitted a week later that the briefcase had been lost.
Matthews represented herself at the tribunal and the SDT heard that she was suffering from a long-standing mental health condition and that she had been “overcome by uncontrollable fear, anxiety and panic” following the incident. Despite this, the SDT ruled that Matthews should be struck off and ordered her to pay £10,000 costs, reduced from costs of £55,000 proposed by the SRA.
Matthews is now being represented by Leigh Day and barristers Mary O’Rourke QC and Rosalind Scott Bell, after a campaign was launched on Twitter in her support.
Many solicitors have reported concern about the level of supervision and support available to junior lawyers during lockdown whilst working from home. It will be interesting to see whether the SRA and SDT take this into account, should disciplinary issues arise relating to incidents that have occurred during lockdown.