The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) last week published its first ever guidance on sanctions, nearly 18 months after the High Court expressed its surprise that such a document did not exist.
The guidance distils existing SDT sanctioning principles so as to assist the parties, the public and the profession in understanding the tribunal’s decision-making process.
It is only very general guidance, however, noting in the introduction: “The tribunal deals with an infinite variety of cases. Prescriptive, detailed guidelines for sanctions in individual cases are neither practicable nor appropriate. The tribunal adopts broad guidance. Its focus is to establish the seriousness of the misconduct and, from that, to determine a fair and proportionate sanction.”
It notes, for example, that a finding of dishonesty “will almost invariably lead to striking off, save in exceptional circumstances”; perhaps the most definitive statement in the guidance is that “the dishonest misappropriation of client funds will invariably lead to strike off”.
Andrew Spooner, newly appointed president of the SDT, said: “The guidance effectively codifies in one document the approach to sanctions that has been adopted by the tribunal for many years. We hope that it will be of assistance to members of the public and the profession and to those who appear before the tribunal.”
Susan Humble, the clerk to the tribunal, claimed the guidance was further evidence of the SDT’s transparency. She said: “Save for in a very few exceptional cases where the tribunal has heard submissions from the parties and directed otherwise, hearings take place in public and fully-reasoned judgments are published on the tribunal’s website available to all to download free of charge.
“Publication of this guidance builds on the SDT’s existing transparency and enables the parties, public and the profession to understand clearly how the SDT reached a particular decision on sanction”.
In Hazelhurst & Ors v Solicitors Regulation Authority  EWHC 462 (Admin) – in which SDT sanctions were overturned – Mrs Justice Nichola Davies said: “It is of note that the SDT has not published indicative sanctions guidance. Such guidance identifies the purpose, parameters and range of sanctions. It permits those who appear before it to better understand the proceedings and the thinking of the SDT. It assists the transparency of the proceedings.
“Such guidance has been used by other regulatory bodies for some years and is a valuable reference point both for the tribunal and for those who appear in front of it, as practitioners or advocates.”
The guidance is on the SDT’s website here.