High Court rejects solicitor’s appeal against £15,000 fine

High Court: Lack of dishonesty does not negate lack of integrity

The High Court has rejected an appeal by a solicitor against a £15,000 fine for paying £900 from a client into his personal bank account.

It is the latest case to test the boundary between dishonesty and a lack of integrity on the part of solicitors.

Mr Justice Walker said Alexander Zivancevic was wrong to argue that, because the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) decided he had not been dishonest, it should also have dismissed allegations of lack of integrity.

Walker J said the SDT’s reasons for rejecting the dishonesty allegations were “in broad summary” that the solicitor “genuinely held a belief that expediency justified the request, and that the failures to notify and to pay the firm involved an oversight”.

The judge went on: “The submission seems to be that, if those matters negated dishonesty, then they must equally negate lack of integrity.”

Walker J said that submission was inconsistent with the “clear statement” by Lord Justice Jackson in Wingate & Evans last year that integrity was a “broader concept” than dishonesty.

“It cannot be assumed that matters negating dishonesty will inevitably negate a lack of integrity,” he said.

The High Court heard in Zivancevic v SRA [2019] EWHC 1950 (Admin) that the solicitor was working as a consultant for a firm in April 2017, and had been acting for a client, Mr T, in a housing matter.

Mr T asked the firm in July 2017 for a breakdown of money paid by him to the firm. The breakdown he received failed to include a payment of £900 made in 2013.

“The firm’s client ledger did not include any such payment, and the firm had no record of any invoice for that sum. Mr T then provided documentation showing that £900 had been transferred into Mr Zivancevic’s personal account on 1 July 2013.”

The law firm’s managing partner reported the matter to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The SDT ruled that, by requesting Mr T to make a payment into his personal bank account, failing to notify the law firm of the payment and failing to transfer the payment to the firm, Mr Zivancevic had breached SRA principles 2 (lack of integrity) and 6 (maintaining public trust in the profession), but had not acted dishonestly.

Mr Zivancevic and the SRA agreed that the issues arising on his appeal were whether the tribunal was wrong to find that his conduct lacked integrity and failed to maintain public trust in the profession and whether his fine, at £15,000, was too high.

It was common ground that the solicitor’s request for £900 was for a payment which was either client or office money and under the Solicitors Accounts Rules should not have been paid into his personal account.

However, counsel for Mr Zivancevic argued that a breach of the accounts rules did not amount to a breach in ethical standards.

Referring again to Wingate, Walker J said that what would otherwise be a minor breach may have occurred “in a manner which involves a lack of integrity”.

The judge went on: “It would be plainly wrong in law if a tribunal, after finding a breach of a rule and without giving further thought to the matter, automatically made an assumption that there must have been a lack of integrity.

“But that is not what happened in the present case.”

Walker J found that the SDT’s approach accorded with the principles set out by Jackson LJ in Wingate, which itself followed conflicting High Court rulings, in one of which lack of integrity was held to be synonymous with dishonesty.

“It seems to me that where, as here, Mr Zivancevic has not succeeded in his complaints about findings of lack of integrity, the circumstances of the present case are such that there is simply no room for him to be able complain about findings that his conduct undermined public trust.”

Turning to the solicitor’s £15,000 fine, Walker J said the SDT found the solicitor’s culpability to be “moderately high” – he had failed to “take appropriate steps to remind himself about the unusual arrangement so he could be sure that the harm could be limited by being promptly rectified” and “he had not displayed meaningful insight into the inappropriateness of his actions”.

Walker J said this meant that the sanction was not “clearly inappropriate”.

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