Acting without integrity involves “greater moral turpitude” on the part of a solicitor than dishonesty but a lesser sanction, a High Court judge has found, while appearing to question previous Court of Appeal authority on the issue.
Mr Justice Mostyn was returning to the relationship between the two concepts after the Court of Appeal last year overturned his decision that they were synonymous.
He also said that where lack of integrity was proved, the starting point for solicitors should be suspension.
Mostyn J acknowledged that there has been “a certain amount of legal debate about what integrity actually means”, with the school of thought which regarded it and honesty as describing different standards of moral conduct finding approval at the Court of Appeal as it overturned his conclusion.
He cited Lord Justice Jackson’s view in that decision that “integrity connotes adherence to the ethical standards of one’s own profession. That involves more than mere honesty”.
But he said it was therefore “quite difficult to understand” why dishonesty almost invariably led to the culprit being struck off, when a lack of integrity did not, even though the appeal court’s formulation indicated it was “baser conduct than common-or-garden dishonesty”.
Mostyn J went on: “Doing the best I can to reconcile these conflicting messages from the higher courts, I consider that I have to regard acting without integrity as involving greater moral turpitude than mere dishonesty but that, paradoxically, the former will generally attract a lesser sentence than the latter.
“For my purposes the starting point where a want of integrity is proved against a solicitor is that he or she will, at the very least, be suspended unless the facts of the case can rightly be described as being very unusual and venial.”
Mostyn J was ruling on an appeal against a two-year suspension imposed on Abimbola Adetoye, one of four partners in former south London law firm Alpha Rocks.
The firm’s claims for unpaid fees were described by the High Court as “largely dishonest” in 2016 and dismissed as “wholly without merit”.
The law firm was closed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in February 2017 after the High Court rejected a challenge to the intervention.
Mr Adetoye had been a partner and the COLP at Alpha Rocks from October 2011 to November 2014, when, in the aftermath of the first High Court ruling criticising the firm, the SRA began disciplinary proceedings against Mr Adetoye and three other partners in the firm.
Mostyn J said Mr Adetoye successfully disputed an allegation of dishonesty at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in October 2018 but was found to have acted without integrity and admitted recklessness. Two partners were struck off and the other fined £50,000.
Mostyn J said the SDT had found that Mr Adetoye signed particulars of claim and a statement of truth on behalf of a claim by the firm against a client for over £237,000, the contents of which were not “accurate or true”.
In a further particulars of claim, Mr Adetoye said a company was entitled to possession of certain land when in fact the company had been struck off the register of companies.
In a third case, Mr Adetoye was found to have broken the accounts rules by allowing the withdrawal of deposit funds from client account, and in a fourth signed a defence which included inaccurate statements.
Mostyn J said that where lack of integrity was proved, the starting point should be suspension unless there were exceptional mitigating factors.
“It is true that the second, third and fourth instances of want of integrity are of a different scale to the first. Those could probably be described as venial.
“However, the first was extremely serious. I have to say that the appellant was in this regard lucky not to have been found guilty of dishonesty.”
Mostyn J concluded: “In my judgment the tribunal was plainly right not to depart from the starting point of suspension.
“The quantum of suspension is a matter quintessentially for the tribunal which cannot be interfered with on appeal unless the exercise of discretion can be shown to have gone completely off the rails. That has not been demonstrated in this case.”
He dismissed Mr Adetoye’s appeal.