Solicitors Regulation Authority v Matthews (Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, 25 March 2020)

A (presently) former solicitor has taken to crowdfunding to cover the costs of an appeal against the judgement striking her off the Roll.

Claire Matthews was newly qualified and barely through the door at the Birmingham office of a national firm, when, on her commute home one evening, she dozed off – inadvertently leaving a briefcase on the train. The briefcase contained a client file that she was supposed to be doing some urgent work on. That client just so happened to be the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the file related to a data protection claim against them by a litigant in person.

Embarrassing to say the least but ‘these things happen’ I hear you say. It was, however, how she dealt with the aftermath that got her into difficulties.

The next day, Ms Matthews was on planned leave as she was moving into a new house. It was a bank holiday weekend and she phoned in sick on the Tuesday. On her return to the office, she Initially claimed to have left the file at home amongst the packing boxes. It was a full week after the incident before she eventually fessed up albeit to initially claim that the file had been left on the train that morning. As an aside, the urgent work that she was supposed to do on the file from home had to be completed by another solicitor in her absence.

Representing herself before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), Ms Matthews gave evidence of how the incident had impacted her pre-existing mental health issues.  

The SDT held that the mitigation advanced did not constitute ‘exceptional circumstances’ to avoid the inevitable outcome on any finding of dishonesty.

…in all the circumstances of this case the tribunal concluded that there was no evidence which allowed the tribunal to conclude that the respondent’s mental state was of such degree that would have caused her to be unaware of the facts or incapable of distinguishing between true and false, honesty and dishonesty, and the respondent chose to follow the most catastrophic path for her both personally and professionally

Ms Matthews was struck-off the Roll of Solicitors and ordered to pay costs of £10k.  

This case raised a number of interesting points including the weight to be attributed to mental health evidence as a mitigating factor and the folly of litigation in person.

As Henry Kett opined in The Flowers of Wit (1814) ‘…that every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client’. Ms Matthews has now secured pro bono representation for her appeal.   

Further, at time of writing, the Go Fund Me page to meet the costs, should she be unsuccessful, has attracted donations of just over £7k towards her £40k target with any surplus funds being donated to LawCare.

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By Paul Sullivan FRSA

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