A personal injury lawyer who the Solicitors Regulation Authority accepted was a “diligent and caring solicitor” but was under “significant pressure” from his employer has been cleared of dishonesty.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said members of the public would think Ashley Stanton Singer’s actions in allowing inaccurately dated documents to be sent to defendants in medical negligence cases was “nothing more sinister than carelessness brought about by pressure of work”.
It rejected all of the allegations made against him except one which he admitted.
Mr Singer, aged 51, was admitted in 1996 and at the time in 2016 was a senior associate at Chester firm SAS Daniels, working on personal injury and medical negligence cases.
The SRA alleged that, while acting for two clients, Mr Singer had purported to serve medical reports which did not exist at the time, “caused or permitted” the dates on them to be backdated once they did, and “sought to mislead the defendants”, acting dishonestly in the process.
In relation to another case, the SRA said he referred to a medical report when serving particulars of claim, which “created the impression” that a medical report was in existence when it was not, and so misled the defendants.
Mr Singer admitted only one allegation relating to the first two clients – that he should have known that the medical reports did not exist at the time the particulars of claim were served on the defendants.
He accepted that, by letting this happen, he had breached principle 6 (maintaining public trust in the profession).
There was no dispute that the dates had been altered, but Mr Singer denied he had done it or sought to mislead the defendants.
He said these were a “very small number of cases among the many he had worked on” and he had been under “significant pressure” at SAS Daniels.
Despite having to manage a high volume of cases in circumstances where he had sole responsibility for personal injury and medical negligence work, he said he was not “supported by qualified staff” and instead relied on one legal secretary/paralegal.
Mr Singer claimed the partners had expected him to maintain his billing target and “the pressure on him had eroded his state of wellbeing.”
The SDT said the “very detailed forensic analysis” of client files by the SRA showed that Mr Singer was operating “within a less than optimal working environment with significant pressure to perform”.
The tribunal said this was accepted by the SRA, “whose case was essentially that in all material respects the respondent appeared to have been a diligent and caring solicitor but who had acted out of character in the ways set out in the allegations”.
Bearing in mind the working environment, the SDT said it “could not exclude the possibility” that other people in the firm had altered the dates on the documents, since he was not the only one with access to the files.
There was no “persuasive or determinative evidence” that he had made the alterations or knowingly sent them to mislead the defendants.
The tribunal found that “extraneous factors had caused him to make careless mistakes” – in not checking the documents that had gone out – but these “isolated incidents were not indicative of [a] deviation from a ‘steady adherence’ to an ethical code” such as to justify finding that he lacked integrity.
On dishonesty, the SDT said Mr Singer had been “extremely busy, under pressure to bill and he had received little support from qualified colleagues”.
How the documents had come to be changed would remain “something mysterious and unexplained”.
The solicitor had “admitted that he should have been aware of the inaccuracies in the documents sent out in his name but this did not go so far as to indicate that he knew that what had happened was wrong”.
The tribunal said: “Whilst there had been no obvious personal benefit to him, he had ‘taken his eye off the ball’.”
All the allegations against Mr Singer were dismissed, apart from the breach of principle 6. He was fined £1,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 in costs, half of what the SRA had claimed.