In March 2022, we wrote about how former solicitor Elizabeth Nedin deliberately concealed a complaint made by one of her clients and was struck off the Roll of Solicitors as a result. In this article, we will focus on a case in which sole practitioner, Ian Bond, of Bond Joseph, was sanctioned for advising a client that they would be unable to complain to the SRA as this was a condition of a settlement offer. In this case, for a number of important reasons, the SRA agreed to sanction Mr Bond by way of a written rebuke under a Regulatory Settlement Agreement rather than issue a harsher penalty.
Background to the case
According to the summary of facts of the case, Mr Bond was admitted to the Roll of Solicitors on 1st March 1986 and established Bond Joseph in 1997. Fast forward over 20 years, and Bond Joseph was instructed by a client in July 2019, who then went on to raise several complaints with the firm. In response, Mr Bond wrote to the client, offering to settle their complaints. The settlement offer included a number of conditions, including one requiring the client to refrain from complaining to any regulatory body.
In 2020, Bond Joseph’s insurers took up the matter as the complaint was still not settled. The insurers engaged a different law firm that Mr Bond instructed to make a different settlement offer, again stating the client would not pursue a complaint to any regulatory body.
Admissions, acceptance of wrongdoing, and mitigations
In his representations to the SRA, Mr Bond accepted that he should not have sought to prevent his client from submitting a complaint to a regulatory body. Furthermore, he stated that he:
- should have reflected further before signing and sending the letter to the client and giving instructions to the independent law firm
- did not intend to prevent the client from providing information to bodies exercising regulatory functions in the public interest
- apologised for including the offending term in his correspondence with the client.
Mr Bond admitted that “by attempting on two separate occasions to insert terms into an offer to the client that prevented them from pursuing a complaint about the firm to a regulatory body, he breached Rule 7.5 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs (“the Code”)”. Rule 7.5 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs comes under the section on “conflict, confidentiality and disclosure” and “cooperation and accountability” and states:
“You do not attempt to prevent anyone from providing information to the SRA or any other body exercising regulatory, supervisory, investigatory or prosecutory functions in the public interest”.
The outcome of the SRA breach
The SRA made the decision to issue a written rebuke rather than consider a more severe sanction for a number of reasons:
- He had admitted to and apologised for his wrongdoing
- He is a senior solicitor in charge of his own firm – as such, he should be held to the highest professional standards
- Some form of public sanction was necessary to uphold public confidence in the delivery of legal services
- The breach admitted demonstrates Mr Bond’s repeated conduct and this therefore occurred longer than is reasonable
- There is a low risk that he will repeat the same breach
- The client did not accept the offer made, hence no lasting harm was caused.
The final outcome reached on the 31st March 2022 in the form of a Regulatory Settlement Agreement was that a written rebuke should be published by the SRA regarding the matter, and Mr Bond should pay the SRA investigation costs of £600. The SRA stated that it was necessary to publish the agreement in the interests of transparency in the regulatory and disciplinary process. Following the decision, Mr Bond agreed to the publication of the Regulatory Settlement Agreement.
The Regulatory Settlement Agreement is subject to a number of conditions, as follows:
- Mr Bond will not “deny the admissions made in this agreement or act in any way which is inconsistent with it”.
- If he denies or acts in a way that is inconsistent with the admissions in this agreement, the original conduct may be subject to further consideration by the SRA, potentially including a referral to the SDT.
- If he denies or acts in a way that is inconsistent with the admissions in this agreement may constitute a separate breach of Principles 2 and 5 of the Principles and paragraph 7.3 of the Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs.
In this case, several positive and mitigating factors meant that the matter did not need to be referred to the SDT and could be dealt with by means of a relatively minor sanction in the form of a Regulatory Settlement Agreement. Regulatory Settlement Agreements are a powerful tool in the SRA’s armoury as they not only enable breaches to be concluded, they have a persistent and deterrent effect, and can be a cost effective outcome for the solicitor.
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