Ex-DLA partner avoids strike-off for trying to fake witness’s signature

Signature: Solicitor did not try to copy witness’s

A former equity partner at DLA Piper has avoided being struck off despite admitting to trying to fake a witness’s signature on a mortgage deed.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) accepted that the case of Robert William Henry Arnison fell into the “small residual” category of dishonesty matters where a sanction other than strike-off was appropriate.

It said the misconduct was “momentary, unplanned and it had not benefited Mr Arnison personally”.

There was also redacted medical evidence that indicated the solicitor’s decision making “was likely to have been impaired at the time of his actions”.

Having rejected as insufficient an initial agreement between the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Mr Arnison that he be suspended for six months, the SDT approved a 12-month suspension.

Mr Arnison, who qualified in 1999, was head of the real estate department in DLA’s Manchester office. He was acting for the purchasers of a £13.5m property in Chelsea, who were taking out a £6m mortgage.

On the day of completion in February 2020, the seller’s solicitor noticed that the mortgage deed was missing the witness’s signature.

Mr Arnison said that, “suffering from anxiety and in panic”, he “applied a squiggle where the signature should have been”. He did not try to replicate the witness’s signature, which appeared on other documents.

When the opposing solicitor pointed out the discrepancy an hour later, Mr Arnison arranged for the witness to sign and the matter completed.

He reported what he had done internally and was ultimately stripped of his equity status, taking on the role of a consultant solicitor “at significantly reduced remuneration”.

DLA also reported him to the SRA. Mr Arnison left the firm “as a result of these proceedings” earlier this year and has not practised since.

Further mitigation before the SDT recorded that he had “always worked extremely hard and, as he now understands, excessively hard”.

After the majority of his team left in 2013, he would typically work between 14 and 16 hours a day in the office four days per week, with 10 hours worked on the fifth day. He would also work on most Sunday afternoons and whilst on holiday.

“[He] makes no criticism of the firm in this respect but plainly he took too much upon himself. He was on the verge of burnout. Something had to give.”

The SDT said there had been no harm caused, albeit there had been a risk of harm. “Mr Arnison had likely been overloaded with work (as accepted by his employer) and although it was his responsibility to have raised this fact, it was nevertheless a relevant factor in the misconduct.”

Mr Arnison had a clean disciplinary record and a review of 40 of his files after the misconduct revealed no issues.

“The tribunal noted that the submission as to exceptional circumstances was endorsed by the SRA. The tribunal welcomed a more flexible approach being taken in cases such as this, particularly where medical evidence was available.”

A 12-month suspension “sent a message that this type of conduct was very serious and was unacceptable”, it concluded.

However, it rejected the submission that the suspension should be backdated to 31 January, the date the SDT proceedings had been issued. Mr Arnison’s advocate said he had effectively been suspended from that date.

Deciding that it should start from the date of the decision to suspend (13 June) – which was the usual practice – the SDT said: “The situation that Mr Arnison found himself in was clearly an unfortunate one, but was to a large extent brought about by his own misconduct.

“The matter had been listed promptly at the tribunal and there had been no restriction on his ability to work at any stage of the proceedings.

“While the tribunal recognised that pending proceedings would have a limiting effect on a solicitor’s ability to secure employment, that effect would not be as significant as the result of the proceedings in this case, namely a finding of dishonesty and the imposition of a suspension, regardless of when it commenced.”

He was also ordered to pay costs of £17,250.

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