The High Court has imposed a nine-month suspension on a senior solicitor after he successfully appealed his striking-off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Mrs Justice Carr said Peter Rhys Williams’ misconduct was serious, but not at the highest level, and also criticised the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for the delay in bringing the case and some of the allegations it made.
With the suspension running from the SDT’s original ruling on 9 December 2016, the period is nearly at an end.
As reported in June, the court overturned a finding of dishonesty made by the SDT against Mr Williams because the allegation was not tested during the hearing – which the court called a “serious procedural irregularity”.
Though this meant quashing the strike-off, the court upheld a finding that he acted with a lack of integrity.
In the latest ruling, the court decided that it could determine the sanction, rather than referring the case back to the tribunal.
Mr Williams was originally accused of acting for a client in a bid to defraud the client’s creditors by selling a property at an undervalue, and in doing so misleading various third parties about the value of the property.
As a result of the appeal, he had to be sanctioned in the main for four misrepresentations made to Northern Rock. These led to findings that he failed to act with integrity and behave in a way that maintained the trust that the public placed in him and in the provision of legal service.
The SRA maintained that the sanction of striking-off should stand, while Mr Williams called for a lesser penalty, arguing that he had been punished enough.
Carr J, sitting with Lord Justice Leveson, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, found “a high degree of culpability” given that Mr Williams “consciously and deliberately made misrepresentations to a third-party bank”.
Further, she noted, the misrepresentations were made on three separate occasions over five months.
Northern Rock did not suffer any loss and the tribunal found that Mr Williams had not taken unfair advantage of it. “However, Mr Williams clearly created a false impression to Northern Rock, with at least the risk that Northern Rock would be disadvantaged,” the judge said.
An aggravating factor, she continued, was Mr Williams’ “lack of insight” – he has “expressly denied believing that he had lacked integrity” when making the representations.
As for mitigating factors, “the misconduct was not the result of any deception. There was no loss to make good. Although there was no self reporting, Mr Williams did make some concessions… and he did co-operate in the investigation…
“It is clear that Mr Williams was at all material times a very busy solicitor, working very long hours, with many clients and many active files.
“Standing back, and taking all relevant factors into account, in my judgment this was serious misconduct, but not misconduct at the highest level.”
In deciding sanction, Carr J said: “Mr Williams is 61 years old and has had a hitherto distinguished and successful career of over 35 years. A file of high-quality character evidence was before the tribunal which this court has also considered…
“The partnership to which Mr Williams had moved from Wilsons, Michelmores, has stood by Mr Williams. It is also right to remember that there was excessive delay in the SRA’s progress of Wilsons’ complaint of March 2013. It took until October 2014 for the SRA to write substantively to Mr Williams. The Rule 5 statement was not served until August 2015.
“No allegation of dishonesty was made until December 2015. Mr Williams has suffered serious financial hardship upon being struck off, together with significant adverse publicity, and would face financial ruin if he were to remain struck off.”
Carr J concluded: “Mr Williams’ professional performance, including a lack of sufficient insight on his part, demonstrates the need to underline the gravity of his conduct. Nine months is a term that will both punish and deter whilst being proportionate to the seriousness of the misconduct. Public confidence demands no lesser sanction.”
The SDT had also made an unusually high costs order of £195,000, which the court reduced to £60,000, in part to recognise the success of the appeal but also to reflect that “at least some of the allegations against Mr Williams [before the SDT] should not have been made”.
“This reflects the fact that, on the one hand, the SRA was discharging its responsibilities as a regulator of the profession and succeeded in proving a serious charge of want of integrity which has led to Mr Williams’ suspension from the profession and, on the other hand, that aspects of the prosecution were unsatisfactory and the central overarching allegations against Mr Williams failed.”
The court also made no order as to costs for the appeal as each side succeeded on different aspects.