Geoffrey Williams KC was instructed by Nick Trevette of Murdochs to represent a Solicitor ‘SM’ who faced very serious allegations before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (“SDT”).
To cut a long story short, SM and his erstwhile partner CH were appointed Trustees of a Will Trust of a very unusual nature. The Testator created the trust in order that a family vault in a cemetery could be regularly cleaned and inspected for a period of 80 years. At the end of that period the residue was to pass to the RSPCA.
Having struggled for many years to find adequate cleaners SM and CH set up a limited company which employed their respective wives to carry out the cleaning with CH carrying out the inspections.
After a Forensic Investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority proceedings were brought at SDT. SM faced allegations that he had preferred the interests of the company over the RSPCA by causing or permitting payments to made to the company which he knew to be excessive and/or without disclosing his wife’s interest in the company to RSPCA. This was put as demonstrating a lack of integrity, conduct likely to diminish the public trust, and taking unfair advantage of RSPCA. SM admitted from the outset that he had failed by oversight to notify RSPCA of his wife’s interest.
It was further alleged that SM authorised payments from the trust which he knew or ought to have known were excessive. Again he was accused of lack of integrity, diminishing the public trust and taking unfair advantage of RSPCA. All of these allegations were advanced on the basis that SM was reckless or in the alternative manifestly incompetent. Proof of such allegations almost invariably leads to a Solicitor being struck off the Roll.
Nick and Geoff made stringent efforts to reach an Agreed Outcome on the basis of the single admission made by SM but to no avail. The upshot was a four day contested trial at SDT. SRA was represented by Counsel and called oral evidence from its’ Investigator and an expert in Trust law. SM was called to give evidence in support of his defence.
SDT accepted that SM’s failure to notify RSPCA was an oversight and found proved the allegation that SM had always admitted. Each and every one of the other allegations was dismissed. In particular SRA had failed to adduce any evidence that SM had authorised payments despite the fact that this had been flagged up by Geoff in a submission of no case to answer. SM was not cross-examined on this essential point. SM was fined and ordered to make a contribution towards costs. CH who represented himself was suspended.
There are important lessons to be learned from this case. Solicitors are often inclined to make admissions to allegations purely to achieve an Agreed Outcome whether or not those allegations are capable of proof. This is a serious mistake; the ramifications of which can come back to haunt a Solicitor as time goes by. Whilst Agreed Outcomes may be desirable, Solicitors should only admit those matters that are capable of proof. When that is not acceptable to SRA then the case should be contested. In this four day trial all the material facts came out in the course of evidence and a serious error by the prosecution was quite properly exploited on SM’s behalf.
In consequence, SM’s career was saved. Nick Trevette made a highly significant contribution to this result. We would like to think that a good team had been put in place.