For any legal professional facing disciplinary proceedings by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), it is important to understand the process and rules they follow. In 2019, to make the SDT rules and procedures clearer, especially for those not familiar with the Tribunal’s practice and process, the Solicitors (Disciplinary Proceedings) Rules were updated. In this article, we will outline what to expect if you are subject to SDT proceedings.
The Solicitors (Disciplinary Proceedings) Rules 2019
The Solicitors (Disciplinary Proceedings) Rules 2019 (SDPR 2019) explains in detail how disciplinary proceedings should be handled, including the application, case management, evidence, hearings, and costs of such cases. As the Rules state, their objective is to enable the SDT to deal with cases “justly and at proportionate cost”. The standard of proof in the SDT is the civil standard (on the balance of probabilities).
Responding to the Rule 12 Statement and preparing evidence
If you receive a Rule 12 Statement, the SDT Directions provide the right to respond. This is your opportunity to file a defence to the charges set out, stating why they are incorrect and the evidence you plan to rely on. Your response also gives you a chance to introduce any documentary evidence not submitted by the SRA to the SDT with the Rule 12 Statement.
Your response can be in the form of an Answer and a witness statement. It is vital that you instruct an experienced solicitor to assist you when responding to the Rule 12 Statement. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your case and the SRA’s evidence, it may be in your best interests to admit the wrongdoing and demonstrate the lessons you have learned from the investigation.
If you wish to contest the SRA’s Rule 12 Statement, you, with the help of your solicitor, will need to gather evidence in support of your explanation and defence.
The next step will be to attend an SDT hearing.
At the hearing
Cases are heard before three SDT members, two solicitors and one lay member. Both you and the SRA will have a chance to present evidence and argue your side.
Once all the submissions have been heard, the Chair will provide the panel’s decision on:
- each of the allegation
- what sanctions (if any) are to be given
Sanctions available to the SDT include an unlimited fine, being suspended from practising or having to abide by certain conditions for a period, or the ultimate penalty of being struck-off the Roll of Solicitors.
All parties have a right of appeal to the High Court and permission from the SDT is not required. However, it is highly unusual for the High Court to overturn an SDT decision. What is more common is an appeal by the SRA eliciting harsher sanctions. One case where the SDT was found to have erred was in Williams v Solicitors Regulation Authority  EWHC 1478 (Admin). Here it was held that the SDT’s finding that the Appellant had acted dishonestly in relation to a conveyancing transaction could not stand, as the solicitor had not been cross-examined on the issue.
Mrs Justice Carr stated:
“This [allegation of dishonesty] was the most serious of allegations against a practising solicitor. The case involved multiple allegations, in what was a complex case. This was not a ‘single issue’ case, where it was obvious that the issue would, or might, end up as a central finding (and the only finding of dishonesty) in the case. There was ambiguity in the pleaded case. In all the circumstances, it was necessary for Mr Williams to be challenged directly on the point so that his evidence could be tested properly before a finding of dishonesty could be made. The Tribunal could not fairly find him to be dishonest without the most careful consideration of what he said in his defence.”
The importance of instructing an experienced solicitor
It may be tempting to forgo instructing a solicitor to advise and represent you in the SDT, after all, you are a legal professional. However, given the severity of the sanctions available to the SDT, the rarity of successful appeals, and instances where the SRA has received adverse criticism for its approach, the risk of not relying on advice from a solicitor experienced in SDT hearings are great indeed, putting your status and future as a solicitor at real risk and jeopardy.
We have been helping solicitors and other legal professionals with disciplinary and regulatory advice for 25 years. If you have any questions relating to an SRA investigation or an SDT appearance, please call us on 0151 909 2380 or complete our Free Online Enquiry.