The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) should have adjourned a hearing at which it banned a law firm marketing chief from the profession for accepting kick-backs from referral fees, the High Court has ruled.
Francisco Xavier Rodriguez-Purcet, who was head of marketing and business development at Tandem Law, suffered from bipolar disorder since the age of 20, it said.
He admitted recklessly receiving improper payments from the Axiom Legal Financing Fund and passing confidential information to third parties, but denied dishonesty.
Quashing the tribunal ruling from earlier this year, Mr Justice Holman said: “I perfectly understand that there is inevitable delay, expenditure and a knock-on effect on other cases if an adjournment is granted for medical reasons.
“But we are all human beings. We are all to a greater or lesser extent vulnerable to medical problems. These can sometimes arise inconveniently before a hearing and have to be faced up to.
“In my view, this was a decision that was unjust, and is wrong. They should not have heard this case the following day.
“They should not have put themselves in a situation where, very predictably, the appellant was going to be neither present nor represented.”
Holman J said this was particularly the case when the issue was one of dishonesty. He said the tribunal had medical evidence from a “sufficiently qualified practitioner who had very recently examined” Mr Rodriguez-Purcet.
“That evidence was clearly describing a significantly worsening situation in his very long-diagnosed mental ill health. It clearly describes that his ability to participate properly in the hearing was impacted and impaired.
“It clearly states that having to participate in the hearing might indeed trigger a relapse in his major mental health condition, and clearly advises and recommends that a proper full assessment should take place to establish reliably what the situation was.”
The High Court heard in Rodriguez-Purcet v SRA  EWHC 2879 that Mr Rodriguez-Purcet, a non-lawyer, was head of marketing and business development at Tandem Law between 2011 and 2013.
Following a hearing in March this year, the SDT found that Mr Rodriguez-Purcet had dishonestly arranged corrupt payments for his own benefit and recklessly arranged for confidential client information to be passed to third parties so they could be cold-called about remortgage services.
He was banned from working for law firms without the permission of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), under section 43 of the Solicitors Act 1974.
Holman J said that, on the day of the hearing, a solicitor acting on behalf of Mr Rodriguez-Purcet telephoned and applied for the hearing to be adjourned, but the tribunal declined to adjourn it, and heard the substantive case the following day “at a hearing at which the appellant was neither present nor represented”.
Holman J said the sole ground of appeal was that the tribunal should have agreed to the adjournment.
The judge said a medical report dated less than a week before the hearing from a registered mental health nurse said Mr Rodriguez-Purcet had a “long history of mental ill health” and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 20 – he is now 46.
He had been prescribed lithium and other treatments, but the medical report warned that there were “early warning signs” of a potential relapse.
The SRA as prosecutor relied on an alternative medical report, compiled by a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital who had not seen Mr Rodriguez-Purcet and did not realise he had not worked for the past month.
Holman J said it was a further “glaring omission” in the tribunal’s judgment not to feature this point, or that Mr Rodriguez-Purcet’s solicitor had been unable to get instructions and represent his client.
The judge said he had no power to make an interim order under section 43 to ensure the public was protected before a fresh tribunal hearing could be held, but Mr Rodriguez-Purcet had given him “solemn undertakings mirroring the language of the existing order made under section 43”.
He set aside the tribunal’s judgment and ordered a new hearing. Earlier this year, Andrew Lindsay, the 95% owner and a director of Tandem Law, was struck off for his involvement with Axiom. He has appealed.