Struck off NQ solicitor spared second SDT hearing and restored to roll
Members of the legal profession provided pro bono advice
A newly-qualified solicitor who was struck off the roll of solicitors in March 2020, following a hearing in which she represented herself, has been spared a second Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) hearing after members of the legal profession stepped in to help.
In March 2020, Claire Matthews was struck off after the SDT found she had delayed informing her employer, Capsticks LLP, that she had left a locked suitcase of client documents on a train to try and give herself time to locate the briefcase.
The SDT found Matthews misinformed colleagues on two occasions about the whereabouts of the suitcase, and that the interactions with her colleagues were dishonest. While Matthews accepted she had delayed in reporting the loss of the suitcase, she denied this constituted a breach of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA’s) Principles and denied the allegations she had deliberately sought to mislead colleagues.
Matthews had been qualified just eight months and had worked for Capsticks for four weeks. She represented herself at tribunal and the SDT heard she suffered 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 Matthews should be struck off and ordered her to pay £10,000 costs, reduced from costs of £55,000 proposed by the SRA.
In April 2020, Matthews appealed the SDT’s decision, with advice and assistance from a legal team working pro bono: Gideon Habel and Emma Walker of Leigh Day’s Regulatory and Disciplinary team, Mary O’Rourke QC and Rosalind Scott Bell from Deans Court Chambers, Mark Harries QC from Serjeants’ Inn and Marianne Butler from Fountain Court.
During the appeal, expert medical evidence was considered which diagnosed conditions relevant to Matthews’ mental health. On the basis of the medical evidence, the SRA agreed the case should be remitted to the SDT for redetermination. The appeal was allowed by consent, the SDT’s findings and orders against Matthews were quashed and she was restored to the roll of solicitors.
The SRA obtained its own expert medical evidence. Having reviewed all of the evidence in the matter, including the new medical evidence, it concluded a re-hearing of the allegations would not be in the public interest, provided Matthews agreed to certain conditions being placed on her practising certificate.
The conditions were agreed and the SRA applied to the SDT to withdraw the allegations. It obtained the consent of the SDT to withdraw the allegations, with no order as to costs and all proceedings are now concluded.
Emma Walker of Leigh Day commented: “Claire’s case is a real example of the value of getting expert input in regulatory investigations and proceedings, from legal and medical professionals.
“It was disappointing that neither the SRA nor the SDT saw it as their role to identify the need for expert evidence, because that would have been appropriate in this case. Since Claire’s case was heard in the SDT, both the SRA and SDT have published guidance on health issues. Though this came too late for Claire, it is to be welcomed by the wider profession. It has been a real privilege to advise Claire and I am pleased she has been able to get expert input, which was critical to the outcome in this case. It was encouraging to see the support Claire got from the wider legal profession and I wish her the very best for the future.”
Matthews said: “I hope that the outcome will help other junior solicitors who face similar, difficult situations, in knowing these decisions can sometimes be successfully challenged. I thank everyone who has kindly donated and offered their words of support, without it, I could never have envisioned the result. I am sincerely grateful for all the hard work and effort put in by everyone involved.”
Matthews launched a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs of her appeal and committed to donate any surplus funds to LawCare, the mental wellbeing charity for the legal community. She anticipates she will be to donate almost £7,000 (around half the funds raised) to LawCare.