A newly qualified solicitor who said she was “blinded by panic” when she lied about sending an email containing personal data to the wrong person, has been spared a strike-off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said there were exceptional circumstances when meant striking off Victoria Ellouise Whelan would be disproportionate, despite her dishonesty.
She admitted to her firm what she had done a little over an hour after she told the litigant in person bringing an employment tribunal claim against her client, that an email she was meant to have sent him the previous day must have been blocked by a firewall.
In fact, she had accidentally sent the email – containing a bundle of the claimant’s medical evidence and his personal statement – to an unconnected third party.
She realised her mistake the following morning when the claimant asked where the bundle was.
Soon after her misleading reply, Ms Whelan – who was four months qualified at the time – admitted what she had done to Dorset firm Dutton Gregory’s head of HR and then its COLP, saying she had been “blinded by panic”.
The firm reported what had happened to the Information Commissioner’s Office, told the claimant and gave Ms Whelan a first written warning. It also informed the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
In mitigation, the solicitor outlined how, as well as juggling a very heavy workload at the time, she was facing several “distressing” personal issues which meant she was “operating at the time under acute stress and was not herself”.
The misleading email was sent when she was “hysterical and in a state of shock” at having realised her error.
Since then, she has spent every day “in a state of deep-seated anxiety and shame, and has suffered from health issues as a result”.
Ms Whelan added that she had made changes to ensure the error could not happen again, and noted that she had the continuing support of Dutton Gregory.
In an agreed outcome, the SRA said the misconduct could properly be described as a “moment of madness”. Ms Whelan had “very promptly” expressed her regret and remorse, and there was no evidence of a repetition.
“The case therefore falls within the small residual category where striking off would be a disproportionate sanction,” the SRA concluded. Instead, a six-month suspension would reflect the seriousness of what she had done.
Approving this, the tribunal said: “Her actions were a ‘moment of madness’ from an inexperienced lawyer who had almost immediately realised the gravity of her error, and taken full responsibility for it.
“[She] had not benefitted from her actions and the tribunal noted the personal difficulties within which she was struggling, which clearly significantly contributed to this serious error of judgment.
“The tribunal was satisfied that the circumstances, taken together, were exceptional and related directly to the dishonesty. The Tribunal was therefore satisfied that it would be disproportionate to strike [Ms Whelan] from the roll in this case.”
But the misconduct was still “very serious” the six-month suspension was “entirely appropriate”.
Ms Whelan was also ordered to pay costs of £5,000.