Annual Report of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal
This month saw the publication of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) Annual Report 2013 -2014 (the Report), a report which deals with a considerable amount of change at the SDT and which for many will highlight potential changes that could cause concern to those in practice.
Despite reporting a drop in the number of cases prosecuted by the SRA – a factor which is attributed to the long lead-in time for outcomes-focused regulation – the Report, perhaps more significantly, also highlights a significant increase in the number of Lay Applications; that is to say applications filed by the consumer of the legal service. The SDT view this as, in some ways “a worrying trend in spite of providing evidence of increasing consumer empowerment.”
The Report stresses that an application to the SDT “should rarely be first choice for the consumer if legal consumer complaints procedures are working effectively”.
Often, the Report states, the reason why consumers are taking proceedings to the SDT is because they do not understand why their complaint has been rejected by other bodies such as the Legal Ombudsman and Solicitors Regulation Authority – an indication perhaps that there is still much work to be done to inform and educate consumers. The figures reveal that of 118 applications involving practising solicitors, 12 were made by members of the public with only 2 were certified as showing a case to answer. Whilst these are hardly huge numbers, nevertheless they are seen as demonstrating a worrying trend – and possibly one which could increase.
A further area of concern that the Report highlights is with the plans by the SRA to increase substantially the SRA’s internal fining powers. The Clerk to the SDT, Susan Humble, expresses the view that such a move could “realistically result in a perception by the public and legal services providers that the SRA is acting as investigator, prosecutor, jury and sentencing judge in what would be an exercise carried out on the papers without oral hearing.” Furthermore, since the SDT is also the appeal court for first instance SRA decisions, this could also lead to more appeals to the SDT.
So far as actual numbers of applications, the drop over previous years is actually quite pronounced. For the 16 months to 31 August 2014 (the period covered by the Report as the SDT moves to a January to December reporting period) there were a total of 134 applications to the SDT. This compares to 166 for period to 30 April 2013, 239 for 2012, 227 for 2011 and 273 for 2010. Despite this drop in numbers of cases referred, there has actually been an increase in the number of strikings off.
Thus, looking at the number of cases dealt with by the SDT during the review period, the Report reveals that:
- 70 solicitors were struck off the Roll/Register of Foreign Lawyers for reasons including dishonestly misappropriating client’s money, receipt of a criminal conviction, improper charging of success fees, grossly misleading clients and failing to discharge professional duties honestly and reliably.
- 20 solicitors were suspended – 3 indefinitely and 13 for a year or more.
- 40 solicitors were ordered to pay fines of between £500 and £15,000.
So far as strikings off are concerned the percentage of those dealt with by the SDT in this way has increased. Thus for the relevant periods, the percentage of striking off orders per total number of applications was:
|Year ended 30/4/13||166||75||45%|
|Year ended 30/4/12||239||52||21%|
|Year ended 30/4/11||227||79||34%|
|Year ended 30/4/10||273||84||31%|
However, suspensions have dropped from the levels of the previous three years:
|Year ended 30/4/13||166||43||25%|
|Year ended 30/4/12||239||60||25%|
|Year ended 30/4/11||227||52||23%|
|Year ended 30/4/10||273||44||16%|
The reasons for appearance before the SDT remain fairly consistent over the years with the principal reasons continuing to be failures and breaches.