The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has issued a rare majority decision over the misconduct of husband and wife solicitors in the employment of their son.
He was employed under restrictions imposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) but Richard and Siva Winters allowed him to work in breach of them.
The two solicitor members of the panel decided to fine them £8,000 each, but the lay member believed that short suspensions were warranted.
Mr Winters, who is 74, qualified in 1980, and Mrs Winters, 68, in 1982. They set up Ware, Hertfordshire firm Winters & Co in 1984.
According to an agreed statement of facts put before the tribunal, their son, Oliver, had worked as an administrative assistant at London law firm Memery Crystal for two years and was due to start a training contract when he was dismissed in May 2017.
He had wrongly informed a client that leases had been completed and took steps to fabricate them by transposing the parties’ signatures to give the impression they had signed them.
Oliver was reported to the SRA and, in March 2018, rebuked for dishonesty. He was also made subject to an order under section 43 of the Solicitors Act 1974, meaning no law firm could employ him without the SRA’s permission.
Mr and Mrs Winters applied for and were granted permission to employ him as a legal clerk assisting with certain tasks in conveyancing matters and under Richard’s direct supervision.
Following an anonymous tip-off, the SRA discovered in late 2019 that Oliver had also been working on a range of non-conveyancing matters in breach of the permission, including private client, litigation and commercial disputes – in two cases, he was the fee-earner with conduct.
Mr and Mrs Winters admitted this and said it had been an oversight on their part not to seek further approval from the regulator. They said the misconduct was inadvertent and not deliberate.
Pointing to their unblemished careers in the profession, they recognised they would be sanctioned by the SDT. This was “not the career legacy they dreamed of upon qualification”.
In their mitigation, they also pointed to the “inordinate and unexplained delay” on the part of the SRA in progressing the case. Oliver left the firm in November 2019.
The SRA proposed £8,000 fines for each of them, noting there was no evidence that the misconduct caused any harm. But they had “undermined the public protection purpose” of the approval decision.
The two solicitor members of the SDT were “satisfied that the proposed sanction met the seriousness of the misconduct”, the decision recounted.
“The majority did not consider that the misconduct was so serious as to require a suspension and it agreed that it fell within the ‘more serious’ bracket for a financial penalty.”
Further, the fines, plus costs of £12,000, “represented a substantial and significant amount in the context of two solicitors who were approaching the end of their careers”.
The SDT went on: “The majority took account of their previously unblemished career and accepted that the impact of these findings would be heavily felt.”
However, the lay member “considered that the matters were of a greater level of seriousness than was reflected in the proposed sanction”.
Given that he had acted dishonestly, Oliver “had been fortunate to be granted permission to work in a firm”, albeit under strict rules.
“It was the responsibility of the respondents to be meticulous in ensuring the rules were complied with. They should have been much more astute in ensuring the conditions were adhered to. The failure to do so was a serious matter.
“The risk of harm was high and in view of the fact that the person being supervised was the son of both respondents, the harm to the reputation of the profession was especially significant.”
The lay member said the “only appropriate sanction” was a short period of suspension.