The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has taken the highly unusual step of throwing out proceedings taken against a solicitor, finding that the actions of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) constituted an abuse of process.
A recently published tribunal ruling – albeit relating to a hearing and decision made a year ago – said the solicitor would not have found himself before the SDT had the SRA not “moved the goal posts”.
Dennis Brown, a sole practitioner in Colchester, was investigated over an allegation that he asked for costs from an unrepresented opponent when he should not have done, which he disputed. In 2009, an SRA adjudicator found him guilty of breaching the old Solicitors Code of Conduct and warned him as to his future conduct.
Mr Brown appealed against this decision to an adjudication panel, which decided to stand the matter over for further investigation. As a result of this, Mr Brown found himself referred to the SDT on charges of seeking to take unfair advantage of an unrepresented opponent and failing to deal with the SRA in an open, prompt and co-operative way.
The SDT found that this further investigation covered matters which had existed from the start, and that the SRA had not been sufficiently clear in explaining to Mr Brown the possible consequences of exercising his right to appeal. “It was obvious that, had he been aware of the possibility of his case being referred to the tribunal, he would have accepted the first adjudicator’s decision and the matter would have been closed,” the SDT said.
It continued: “Based on the unique facts of this particular case, it appeared to the tribunal that the way in which the SRA had moved the ‘goal posts’ leading to the referral to this tribunal had caused significant prejudice to the respondent in that it had misled him and resulted in unfairness to such an extent as to constitute an abuse of process.” As a result, the SDT struck out the proceedings.
Mr Brown told Legal Futures that he was unhappy that the SRA “took this case on at all, much less that they took it to the SDT. I am grateful to the members of the SDT, who I believe saw the case for what it is and dismissed it as an abuse of process. It is unfortunate that it has cost me so much money to defend my position over a period of years…
“The proceedings have had a very adverse effect on my practice that has not led to any offer of compensation from the SRA, despite my request for [it].”
An SRA spokeswoman said: “The tribunal’s views were expressly stated to be based on the unique facts of this particular case and its reasons are clearly set out in its judgment.”