High Court: SDT wrong to reject solicitor’s medical evidence but right to strike him off

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1 April 2015


RCJ

Edis J: Tribunal must not disregard “overall justice of the case”

The High Court has upheld a decision by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) to strike off solicitor Timothy Schools, but said that evidence about the state of his health should not have been rejected.

Mr Schools is best known for his involvement in the failed Axiom Legal Financing Fund, though this was not part of the disciplinary hearing, which related to his work for ATM Solicitors in Preston.

He was struck off after the tribunal upheld 10 allegations against him. These included failing to act with integrity, acting where there was a conflict of interests, and acting in a manner which led to his independence and that of ATM Solicitors being compromised.

The solicitor suffered from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which spread from his right to his left leg a few days before the tribunal decided not to postpone his disciplinary hearing.

Mr Justice Edis said that, given the situation, it was “unreasonable” for the tribunal to expect any more medical evidence than was provided.

He said the SDT was required by its own policy to examine cases on their merits and “a failure to bear that in mind is likely to lead to inflexible applications of the policy without regard to the justice of the case”.

Edis J went on: “I well understand why the SDT was frustrated by the history of the case, when the appellant had been making unmeritorious applications to adjourn the case on psychiatric grounds and had failed to comply with directions relying on the same grounds.

“However, that is exactly the kind of situation where a tribunal must carefully guard against rushing to a judgment which disregards the overall justice of the case. I consider that the decision, however, was right although the basis for it was wrong.”

The court heard in Schools v SRA [2015] EWHC 872 (Admin) that as well as being struck off, Mr Schools was also subject to civil proceedings brought by “the receivers of funds which had made loans to the appellant’s law firm and others to fund litigation”.

As a result, Edis J said lawyers acting for Mr Schools had done work, by June 2014, “which they valued at around £450,000” and which had not been paid for.

Mr Schools argued that the SDT should adjourn the disciplinary hearing, both because he could not afford representation and because his health meant that he could not attend.

Edis J said the “best course” would have been for the SDT to have left the case in the list and directed Mr Schools to produce better medical evidence.

However, the judge said the DVT suffered by Mr Scholes “did not stand alone” and he had a “track record of attempts” to avoid the hearing taking place.

“It appears to me that the evidence did justify the SDT taking the view that the appellant decided that he would only attend on his own terms, that is when he could instruct his lawyers to represent him.”

Edis J said there was no suggestion that the SDT’s policies were unlawful, either on medical evidence or lack of funds for lawyers. The judge said this was not a case of a temporary lack of funds and it was not certain that funds “would ever become available”.

He said Mr Schools could have put in a witness statement if he had chosen to, and his decision not to “supports the finding of the SDT that he had decided voluntarily to desist from defending himself in the discipline proceedings”.

Mr Justice Edis concluded that the tribunal “exercised its discretion properly on the material available to it in refusing to adjourn the hearing”. He dismissed the appeal.

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