New Case Demonstrates Inconsistencies In SDT Decisions

In a recent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) hearing, it was ruled that a solicitor who backdated a document in a “blind panic” could continue working in the legal profession.

Although this is a welcome decision, given it has saved a young solicitor from being struck off and thereby ending a promising career, it highlights the inconsistency of SDT decisions. In other cases with similar facts, the accused has been struck of the Roll of Solicitors.

The facts of the incident

At some time between 14 and 23 September 2015, Naomi Duxbury-Tetley, an associate solicitor, created a backdated letter which she knew to be untrue.

To avoid a claim for professional negligence and “make the nightmare go away”, Ms Duxbury Tetley allowed the letter to mislead counsel acting for her client and the opposing party.
After being asked to sign a statement of truth, she admitted creating and backdating the document, and immediately resigned from her firm, North Yorkshire practice Mewies Solicitors.

At the SDT hearing, Ms Duxbury Tetley stated that she was not sleeping properly and “just functioning” at the time the incident took place. According to the Law Society Gazette, Professor Keith Rix, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, appeared at the tribunal to explain Ms Duxbury-Tetley was experiencing ‘tunnel vision’ at the time, which affected her ability to understand and to think calmly and rationally about the nature and consequences of her actions. In his opinion, the solicitor was ‘struggling to function’ and what she did was out of character.

Her counsel, Ben Hubble QC, stated that his client was “mortified” and extremely remorseful following her actions.

The SDT ruling

The SDT stated the medical evidence in the hearing made this a ‘unique and wholly exceptional case’. The misconduct, it added, had been ‘extremely grave and had it not been for the strong medical evidence, the outcome would have been quite different and far more serious’.

It was ruled that Ms Duxbury Tetley, who has since found a position at another firm, be supervised by a solicitor with at least 10 years’ experience for the next three years. Costs of £5,000 were also ordered.

Stress, panic, and disastrous decisions

According to research published in October 2016, a whopping 70% of solicitors in the UK believe they work in an extremely stressful profession . 80% of lawyers surveyed cited workload as the number one source of their stress. Other causes mentioned included client demands, billing targets, lack of support, competition and partnership issues.

Thankfully, in this latest case, the solicitor was shown mercy by the SDT and allowed to remain in her chosen profession. But others have not been so lucky.

For instance, in 2014, Joanne Coughlan, a solicitor in Sheffield was struck off for backdating a letter to make it appear she had complied with a court order to submit medical evidence. The misdemeanour was discovered through her employer’s internal checks and balances. A subsequent search through Ms Coughlan’s files showed that like Ms Duxbury Tetley, she had never behaved in such a way prior to the offence.

In another, more recent example, Neil Ian Benson, formerly with London practice Hamlins LLP, admitted creating six letters which falsely claimed he was progressing a client’s case. At his hearing in July 2017, Mr Benson, who had two decades experience as a solicitor, said he was dealing with extremely challenging personal circumstances at the time of the events in question, and those circumstances affected his decision making. He submitted he was suffering from stress and depression and provided medical evidence in this regard. He was struck off regardless.

Inconsistencies equal unjustness

As a defence lawyer representing professionals accused of misconduct, I find the inconsistency shown by the SDT highly disturbing. Client and partner demands on associates and solicitors are unlikely to decrease. Stress and depression is a well-recognised problem within the legal profession, not only in the UK but all over the world. In 2013, a prominent, highly-gifted New Zealand defence lawyer, Greg King, committed suicide aged. His suicide note stated he was exhausted, unwell, depressed, completely burnt out, and haunted by the dead from his numerous homicide cases.

Unfortunately, there is a culture, not just in the legal profession, but others as well, such as medicine, dictating that long hours and relentless pressure are the price paid for a comfortable salary.
But if we blithely accept stress and depression as part and parcel of being a lawyer (or a doctor, architect or accountant), we must also accept the consequences. And that includes the fact that mistakes will be made and sometimes frightened people will do things completely out of character to protect themselves, their colleagues and their families.

Ms Duxbury Tetley was thankfully given a second chance. It is time that the SRA and SDT recognise that mental health issues are serious and can cause solicitors to act out of character. Rather than add to the plight of such people by stripping them of their profession, a consistent approach similar to the one applied to Ms Duxbury Tetley needs to be applied.

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