There has been a sharp rise in the number of solicitors appearing before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) amid claims that some “do not have the rounded set of skills to run a business”.
The SDT’s annual report also revealed that it will be looking at whether the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to blame for delays in hearings taking place within a six-month target.
In 2015, the SDT received 123 applications for hearings involving practising solicitors, up 16% from 106 in 2014. In 2013, there were just 78.
There was also an increase in applications made directly by the public, rather than the SRA, although in only one of the 12 submitted did the SDT deem that there was a case to answer.
Some 56 solicitors were struck off in 2015, up from 48 the year before. A further 56 received other sanctions – suspension, reprimand or fine – more than twice the 27 in 2014. The £516,000 paid to the Treasury in fines included a record penalty of £305,000 for one solicitor who was found to have taken advantage of a client.
In 2015 the SRA obtained orders for costs worth £1.7m in total.
Writing in the annual report from the perspective of a new solicitor member of the tribunal, Timothy Smith said: “Sitting in tribunal, common themes emerge. There are some who are simply unsuited to be solicitors due to moral defects. There are some who have exemplary records but then for reasons that they themselves cannot account for have completely breached their professional responsibilities.
“There is then a further, and perhaps a more common, category of solicitors who are competent lawyers but do not have the rounded set of skills to run a business. Frequently small problems escalate. Such solicitors would do well to remember that an admission of wrong doing, a request for help, and an attempt to put things right may save a professional career.”
The annual report also showed that the SDT continued to miss its target of resolving 70% of applications within six months of proceedings being issued, managing it only 59% of the time, although this marked a small improvement on the year before.
It indicated that adjournments and the availability of parties and advocates were a major reason for this. “The SDT almost always has the capability to fix hearing dates within the target period,” it said.
The report said the SDT has introduced recording processes to capture the decisions of the tribunal in relation to adjournment applications and application to vary directions, allowing it to understand better why delays happen.
This will include “the state of readiness of cases referred by the SRA”, it said. “If the SRA sends a case to the SDT to be issued it must be on the basis that it is ready for hearing within six months. By analysing the data on adjournment applications, specifically where the SRA has applied for or agreed to adjourn a substantive hearing, the SDT will be able to observe whether there is a pattern emerging of cases being referred that are not ready for hearing within six months.”