Figures from the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) have highlighted gaps of a year or more between some decisions by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to refer cases for prosecution and actually sending over the case papers.
In seven out of 109 cases (6.4%) received by the SDT last year, the gap between decision and receipt was 52 weeks or more. In 17 cases (15.6%), the gap was over 30 weeks.
It is only when the papers are received that the tribunal can then certify whether there is a case to answer and start working towards a hearing.
The tribunal said it was releasing the raw data to enable the profession and the public to “see much more clearly how long it takes cases to reach the SDT” – and seemingly point the finger of blame at the SRA.
The report showed that the average time between the SRA’s decision to prosecute and case papers being received by the tribunal was just under 20 weeks.
It revealed that the SRA used external rather than in-house advocates in a third of cases – 36 out of 109. It also highlighted case management hearings held by the tribunal before the final hearing.
The SDT added: “Delays in the hearing of cases are almost without exception caused for reasons entirely outside the control of the tribunal and its administrative team.
“It is anticipated that the publication of this data will add transparency to the picture and enable the public and profession to understand more clearly why cases can take longer than might immediately seem necessary to reach a final hearing.”
The data also shows how long cases took from receipt of the papers to the hearing. The SDT’s annual report, published in June last year, showed that the tribunal was missing its own target of resolving 70% of applications within six months of proceedings being issued, managing it only 59% of the time.
In its introduction to the data, the tribunal said the most common causes for adjournments were the ill health of respondents, criminal proceedings issued after the SRA had sent disciplinary files to the tribunal, and “identification by the SRA of further allegations against respondents requiring a supplementary statement to be issued, often when the original proceedings are well-advanced”.
An SRA spokesman said: “It is important for everyone that concerns about solicitors or law firms are explored properly. Some cases are complex, contentious, and involve huge amounts of detail.
“As the tribunal says, common reasons for delay include the need to await the outcome of parallel investigations by other organisations, new allegations being raised after the decision to refer has been made, and the ill health of individuals. We are not complacent and committed to improving how we work, so that we deal with cases as quickly as possible.”