The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard fewer cases involving sexual misconduct by solicitors last year than it expected, given the high number investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The SDT also said ill-health was being raised as an issue in “more and more cases”, resulting in “cases being adjourned or even stayed, often at late notice”.
President Alison Kellett said: “It is true that we have not received as many cases based on alleged sexual misconduct as we might have anticipated given the number of such cases that the SRA was investigating at one time.
“However, we are very aware that there is an increasing concern in the profession as a whole about counter-inclusive behaviours and healthy workplaces.
“We have seen some cases reflecting these issues and would anticipate seeing more of them.”
In her introduction to the SDT’s 2021 annual report, published last week, Ms Kellett said the organisation had developed a guidance note on health issues last year to help improve case progression.
Ill-health was by far the most common reason for adjournment applications, with 31, followed by the applicant (usually the Solicitors Regulation Authority) ‘not being ready’ (eight) and the respondent not being ready (six).
Ms Kellett described 2021 as “a year of flux” because of Covid, with the caseload “sometimes difficult to manage” due to a lower-than-predicted flow of cases in general.
“What we did see though consisted of a wide variety of matters including cases relating to anti-money laundering policies and procedures, convictions, misuse of client account and falsifying documents and/or misleading clients.”
There was a 19% increase to 136 in applications to the SDT, but sitting days fell from 253 to 239. The SDT’s budget was static at £3.14m, a rise of 0.5%.
A total of 114 cases concluded in 2021, 37 of them by agreed outcome. As a result, 49 solicitors were struck off – compared to 55 in 2020 – two indefinitely suspended, 10 suspended for a fixed period and 35 fined.
There was a decrease of £81,900 in the fines imposed by the tribunal to £433,600, but an increase of £79,550 in costs ordered to £1.94m.
Most of the 136 applications received during the year were from the SRA but 17 of them from lay people, an increase from the 10 recorded in 2020.
Of the 17 lay applications, 16 were certified as providing no case to answer, generally because of insufficient evidence of professional misconduct.
However, in one case the SDT requested that the SRA investigate the matter and it was later certified as showing a case to answer.
The number of ‘other applications’, for example for restoration to the roll, rose from 13 to 22.
Ms Kellett added: “Historically about 90% of applications in any given year have been made by the SRA and it will be interesting to see whether this shift in the nature of the SDT’s caseload is sustained or was a one-off.”