Headbutting a litigant-in-person (LiP) in the High Court may have been a “moment of madness” but the solicitor involved could not stay in the profession, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has ruled.
Philip James Saunders, now 71, argued that the headbutt, which left his victim with a broken nose, was “temporary insanity” which should result in a suspension rather than strike-off.
However, the SDT found that Mr Saunders had “precipitated” the fracas with “an inappropriate and unnecessary altercation” and described CCTV footage of the incident as “deeply unattractive”.
The tribunal went on: “To allow him to stay on the roll would be to give priority to his personal tragedy over the reputation of the profession.
“The tribunal had weighed all the factors in account and determined that a lesser sanction than strike-off would be inappropriate. A solicitor who had perpetrated such a violent act in the precinct of the High Court of Justice, albeit in a moment of madness, could not remain on the roll of solicitors.”
Mr Saunders, who was born in 1947 and qualified in 1974, had been a partner at Bearman Saunders, a property law firm in London, for 30 years.
Mr Saunders had been instructed in a transaction in respect of which the LiP, referred to as Mr G, had claimed an interest. Mr G twice reported the solicitor to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, but the complaints were not upheld.
Mr G’s claim was struck out in 2014, but he made “a number of applications and challenges” and was back in the High Court as a LiP in April 2016 for an application for a judge to be recused on the grounds of alleged bias.
Mr Saunders said he confronted Mr G “by chance” in a narrow corridor after the hearing, upset by comments the LiP had made about him to the judge.
“The respondent stated that he had said that he hoped that Mr G had enough money to pay all costs which were around £750,000. Mr G was a litigant in person. That statement caused the altercation.
“The respondent stated it came to a point where he lost all self-control. The tribunal had heard the sentencing remarks made by the judge at his criminal trial which referred to a comment which the judge considered it likely had been made and which the respondent stated was of a vile anti-Semitic nature.
“The respondent was aged 69 years at the time of the incident. He was an observant religious Jew and he had a high moral standard. The respondent stated that he was bitterly ashamed that he had lost his temper.”
Following his assault trial last year, Mr Saunders was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, suspended for 24 months. He was ordered to undertake 200 hours of unpaid work, made subject to a restraining order and ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £140.
Mr Saunders admitted failing to uphold the rule of law and proper administration of justice at the tribunal, and failing to behave in a way that maintained public trust in him and in legal services.
He denied that he had acted with a lack of integrity: “Integrity related to honesty and strong moral principles and he could not see how his behaviour on that day, a total loss of control arising out of a raw anti-Semitic insult, negated the way he behaved and had behaved since.
“What happened had a profound effect on the respondent. Immediately afterwards he ceased to act as a solicitor.”
The SDT described the behaviour of Mr Saunders as “astonishing and unforgivable”, with the video of the incident finding its way onto the internet and the press.
“All solicitors encountered opponents with whom they found it extremely difficult to deal but they had to rise above it.
“In considering whether the tribunal should accede to the respondent’s request that he be suspended rather than struck off, the tribunal had to weigh the personal tragedy this event had caused to the respondent against the need for the tribunal to protect the reputation of the profession in the eyes of the public.”
Mr Saunders was struck off and ordered to pay £4,600 in costs.