In February 2022, the SDT decided on a matter involving former solicitor, Elizabeth Nedin, who concealed a complaint made by one of her clients. The case should act as a reminder for law firms of the importance of putting in place clear procedures and secure systems for handling complaints. Here we will look at the details of Ms Nedin’s case and the decision reached by the SDT.
What were the allegations against the respondent?
The SDT heard that the Respondent, Ms Nedin, who had been a solicitor since 2013, worked for SDMC Law Ltd, trading as Donoghues Solicitors based in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, at the time of the matter referred to. Ms Nedin was dismissed by the firm in 2019, approximately four weeks after the complaint was first made. The allegations made against Ms Nedin included, amongst others, that she:
- Concealed a complaint from her client, Person A, between 21st May 2019 and 13th June 2019.
- Did not inform the firm’s Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP) of the complaint.
- Sent responses by email to Person A purporting to be from the firm’s COLP regarding the complaint.
- Deleted emails received from and sent to Person A.
These actions represented a breach of any or all of the SRA’s Principles 2011, specifically:
- Principle 2 (to act with integrity)
- Principle 4 (to act in the best interests of each client), and
- Principle 6 (to behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services)
Ms Nedin’s actions also represented a failure to achieve the SRA’s Code of Conduct 2011, specifically:
- Outcome 1.1 (to treat clients fairly)
- Outcome 1.11 (clients’ complaints are dealt with promptly, fairly, openly and effectively).
The Tribunal heard that on 3rd June 2019, Ms Nedin sent an email to Person A in reply to her complaint stating, “We will be reviewing the file together today and will send you a response by email by 4pm on Tuesday 4th June 2019 which will cover all points raised in your letter”. The SDT heard that no such arrangements had been made, and Ms Nedin had not informed the firm’s COLP of the matter.
Ten days later, the Respondent again wrote to Person A by email stating, “Apologies that you have not received a response as the file has indeed been reviewed” when the complaint still had not been referred to the COLP and had not followed the firm’s formal complaints process.
The secretary of the firm’s COLP, Mr SJ, discovered the complaint email in the deleted email folder and the COLP met with Ms Nedin to discuss the matter. A recorded note of the meeting states, “[Ms Nedin], as per the telephone conversation earlier in the day, indicated that she was purely motivated to correct any perceived errors in her conduct without troubling [Mr SJ] with the formal complaint that was made by [Person A]”.
Failures within the complaint system
The SDT heard that emails sent to the firm were stored on a central computer with one inbox, one sent box and one deleted folder. All fee earners had access to these email folders and were expected to “discern emails sent to them and respond to the same”. This meant that all fee earners could see all emails sent to the firm, and furthermore, they could send emails on behalf of any member of staff.
The Respondent’s case
Ms Nedin accepted that she had breached the SRA’s rules and admitted to the allegations made against her. In her response, she stated, “Thinking about the complaint, the Estate file, the conveyancing file or even hearing [Person A’s] name would make me so very anxious and fearful, I would block it out and before I knew it, weeks had passed. I hid the complaint from [SJ] knowing that this was of course, the worst thing I could have done as obviously the complaint was not going to go away and he was the only person that could have helped me and the only person that needed to know the complaint existed”.
The SDT acknowledged the Respondent’s admission to having sent emails from the COLP, when the matter was first discovered by the firm, during her meetings with the firm’s COLP, and in correspondence with the SRA. As the SDT stated in the judgment, “Given her consistent acceptance of wrongdoing the Tribunal determined that Ms Nedin’s admission was properly made and accepted the same”.
The SDT’s decision
The SDT concluded that:
- Ms Nedin was motivated by self-preservation and the reputation of the firm as opposed to Person A’s best interests.
- Direct harm was caused to Person A with regard to the administration of his uncle’s estate
- The misconduct was aggravated by the fact that it was (a) dishonest, (b) calculated, (c) repeated, (d) deliberate, (e) constituted a number of individual acts over a protracted period of 23 days and (f) Ms Nedin knew that what she was doing amounted to a material breach of the duty incumbent on her to protect the public and the reputation of the legal profession.
- There were several mitigating features to Ms Nedin’s misconduct, including her previous good character, her demonstration of genuine insight, her open and frank admissions to the firm, the Applicant and the Tribunal, and her full co-operation.
As a result, the SDT made the determination the misconduct found was at the highest level and that in the overarching public interest, Ms Nedin should be struck from the Roll of Solicitors. She was also ordered to pay £11,400 in costs.
The case of Ms Nedin demonstrates that the SRA and SDT take seriously any attempt to conceal complaints received from members of the public. Despite the existence of some mitigating features, the decision was still made to strike off the Respondent from the Roll of Solicitors.
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