A family lawyer found to have fabricated and backdated letters across of host of cases – including child contact and domestic violence matters – has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The SDT said “significant harm” had been done to the reputation of the profession and of the firm, Bridge McFarland, where she was an associate in the Lincoln office.
“The firm had had to write to clients, other firms of solicitors, medical professionals and the court to establish the true position and this would invariably have caused reputational damage.”
The SDT found that Claire Margaret Wheeler had “deliberately deceived” her clients, the court, other solicitors, her firm and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Ms Wheeler, who was born in 1986 and admitted in 2010, made statements to the firm and the SRA but did not engage in the disciplinary process.
Her employment ended “by mutual agreement” in May 2014, and the SRA received a report about her conduct from the law firm on the same day.
The problems initially came to light after a complaint from one client, for whose case Ms Wheeler was found to have created eight letters on 10 February 2014, but dated between 22 January 2014 and 3 February 2014.
Ms Wheeler insisted that, because of her “vast workload”, she had been working at home and used her personal Hotmail account to create a draft email that into which she would put the wording of a letter into the body of the email or would attached it in a Word document.
She would then open Hotmail at work the following day and cut and paste the letter wording into the letter template on the work system. She would send out the letter “but not save the letter to the work system at that time”.
Ms Wheeler said she would later catch up with her administration and save the letters then.
The SRA replied that it made no sense for her to operate like this, as it would have taken “a matter of seconds” to save the letters onto the work system.
The ruling said: “The tribunal concluded that the respondent had fabricated and/or backdated the eight letters. Her explanation as to how these letters had been created was not credible.”
Further, the evidence from the firm’s systems did not support her assertions, including that staff were not able to access Hotmail between 9am and 5pm.
The SDT said she had acted in this way “to conceal her lack of progress on the case”.
Bridge McFarland then investigated Ms Wheeler’s other files and found evidence of similar behaviour in 43 more cases. Nine were cited before the tribunal and the SDT came to the same conclusion on each one.
Despite strong testimonials about her character and integrity from her former secretary and a former colleague, Ms Wheeler was found to have acted dishonestly.
In mitigation, she had told the SRA that she had felt isolated as the only family law fee-earner left in the Lincoln office after various departures.
She claimed to be working up to 14 hours a day, at home and in the office, and as a result of work stress had been diagnosed with “very high blood pressure”.
“The respondent stated that she was dedicated to the firm and wanted to make the department profitable, which was why she worked such long hours and gave her all give clients good customer service.
“This resulted in her working in the way that she was, often adding electronic documents to the system at a later time because she had not saved documents when she printed them…
“She would print documents off just before she was setting off to court or before seeing clients and would not therefore save them to the system or do what she classed as administrative jobs unless she was having an admin day at the office.
“She accepted that this way of working was not ideal but stated that it was clearly a by-product of the vast workload that she had.”
The tribunal concluded that there was “no medical evidence” to show that mental or physical illness had prevented Ms Wheeler from conducting herself to the standards of a reasonable solicitor and there was no evidence that she had been inadequately supervised.
Deciding that she had to be struck off, the SDT said: “The respondent’s clients had trusted her and she had acted in breach of that trust.
“When a client puts their matter in a solicitor’s hands, that client thinks that the solicitor is doing what they are supposed to be doing and the respondent was not.
“This was especially relevant in this case as the respondent was a family lawyer and some of the matters involved children and clients experiencing domestic abuse.”
Ms Wheeler was also ordered to pay costs of £32,373, a reduction of £3,000 to take account the “lamentable delay” by the SRA at the investigation stage which delayed the case by a year.
The tribunal suggested Ms Wheeler may have been more inclined to present her case before the SDT but for the delay as the case had been hanging over her a long time.