SDT urges solicitors to be open with clients after suspending partner

SDT: Solicitor over-confident

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has urged solicitors under work pressures to “be open with their clients when problems arise” after suspending a partner who was “cavalier” in his approach.

It issued a six-month suspension to Ian Patrick Charles Clay, who had shown “over-confidence and an apparent laissez-faire attitude towards his clients’ cases”.

The ruling concluded: “As a final observation the tribunal reminded all solicitors, and others working under a solicitor’s supervision, to recognise the stage when the volume of their work is impacting adversely on their practice.

“Those who are under such pressure must seek help from their colleagues at an early stage and be open with their clients when problems arise. Whilst mistakes and errors will happen, prompt action may prevent them becoming conduct matters.”

Mr Clay had worked in banking before qualifying in 2009 at the age of 44. At the time of the misconduct in 2019, he was a partner at Walker & Co in Rotherham until he was dismissed for gross misconduct in February 2020.

He failed to make Clients F and H aware of key information about their separate employment tribunal claims.

He did not tell Client F that an unless order had been made and subsequently that her part of her claim had been struck out.

Mr Clay similarly failed to tell Ms H that her claim had been struck out with an order for her to pay costs and, when she learnt about it, told her that this was because the claim was weak – when in fact he had failed to attend the defendant’s application for summary judgment.

He accepted that his communications “could and should have been clearer and more complete”, admitting that he was “overly confident” that the employment tribunal would accept substantial compliance with the order in relation to Client F. He also acknowledged that the delay in telling Client H was a “service failing”.

The SDT found Mr Clay had lacked integrity but, in “a finely balanced decision”, rejected the allegation that he had been dishonest in relation to Client F. “It had not been Mr Clay’s intention to deliberately mislead Client F in circumstances where his view of the situation was that what had gone wrong would be repaired.”

In mitigation, Mr Clay said he no longer worked in litigation and had instead established himself as a property lawyer, “an area which suited his skill set and character much better”, his counsel said.

In deciding on sanction, the SDT said that “genuine mistakes were badly handled by Mr Clay, and he allowed matters to spiral to the extent that his clients were prejudiced and disadvantaged”.

It continued: “There was a failure on his part to understand the end result his decisions to edit the information he gave his clients would have upon them and this stemmed from an absence of critical thought and analysis which he should have been applied to the issues before him.

“Instead, he placed over-reliance on expecting matters to right themselves without taking his clients’ instructions and/or his own effective intervention, e.g. his failure to ensure that Ms H’s hearing was covered in circumstances where he had had no assurance that his request for a new date had been granted by the court.”

The breaches were “the natural consequence of Mr Clay’s over-confidence and an apparent laissez-faire attitude” towards his clients’ cases.

“Litigation requires scrupulous attention to detail and for a solicitor to act quickly and decisively in their client’s best interests. To disregard an ‘unless order’ (which, by its nature is draconian) in the case of Client F or allow matters to play out in the way they did for Ms H was extremely careless…

“He should have been open with them when he became aware of the errors instead of burying the information and hoping things would correct themselves in his clients’ favour. The way he handled matters was a recipe for disaster, rebounding ultimately upon himself.”

Character evidence left the SDT in “no doubt that Mr Clay was in many respects a caring and dedicated solicitor”. This had been “an isolated aberration in his behaviour, albeit a serious one” and a six-month suspension was “the minimum sanction to reflect the gravity of the misconduct”.

In light of his “somewhat cavalier attitude to his client care and his duties to the court”, the SDT ordered that he attend a Law Society course on ethics and professionalism before returning to practice.

Mr Clay was also ordered to pay costs of £12,000.

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