A solicitor who deliberately broke professional rules by releasing confidential client files so as to help convict a murderer has agreed to leave the law.
Stephen Chittenden has already retired and signed up to a regulatory settlement agreement with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to avoid a likely strike-off by a disciplinary tribunal.
Mr Chittenden, who most recently worked at Derby firm The Smith Partnership, acted for teenager Roy Brookes, acquitted in 1978 of the murder of Lynn Siddons, who was stabbed to death by a canal in Barrow-on-Trent.
It was not until 1996 that Roy’s stepfather Michael was convicted of murdering Ms Siddons. He is currently serving a life sentence.
Speaking to Legal Futures last year after his retirement, Mr Chittenden said that before and during Roy’s trial, evidence emerged that his stepfather was also involved in the stabbing.
In the late 1980s, the Siddons family launched a ground-breaking civil action against Michael Brookes, resulting in a judgment from Mr Justice Rougier in 1991 holding him liable for assault and awarding the dead girl’s estate damages. It was only after this that Derbyshire Police charged him with murder.
As part of the civil action, Mr Chittenden said he released confidential papers to a law firm instructed by the Siddons family, containing crucial evidence from Roy about his stepfather.
“Releasing the papers unlocked the door for the murder conviction. That is unarguable. I was responding to a request for the papers. I know I should not have sent them.”
However, he expressed regret about the civil action because Roy was sued as well, although eventually found not liable. Mr Chittenden said: “I let Roy down. I let the papers go without any attempt to get his instructions.”
According to the agreement published yesterday, although Mr Chittenden confirmed on oath in 1991 that he had not received specific instructions from Roy to release the file, the misconduct only came to the attention of the SRA last year, when he spoke out upon his retirement.
Mr Chittenden admitted acting improperly and in breach of his duties to his client of confidentiality and to protect his legal professional privilege. He had also provided the file to another firm acting for Ms Siddons’ estate in the late 1970s.
The agreement said: “Mr Chittenden accepts and admits that these actions were extremely serious breaches of, in particular, his duty of confidentiality to his client and constituted conduct that is completely unacceptable on the part of a solicitor.
“He accepts that, were the matter to be brought before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, he might well be struck off. He accepts that such an outcome would properly reflect the gravity of his misconduct and that the SRA has agreed to the outcome below on that basis and taking into account, in particular, his ill-health and early admissions.
“He also accepts that he must never practise as a solicitor again or work for a firm regulated by the SRA.”
It recorded that Mr Chittenden did not realise that one potential outcome of his improper disclosure was that his client would face civil proceedings.
In mitigation, he apologised for breaking the rules and said he regretted his actions. “His decisions to disclose the documents came after he felt pressurised to do so by his local MP, the press and the solicitors acting for the estate of the murder victim.”
Mr Chittenden noted that though the fact of the disclosure was known in 1991, no party made a complaint.
“He was motivated to disclose the documents not for personal gain but in the greater interests of justice, which were ultimately served by the conviction of [Michael Brookes].”
Mr Chittenden had an unblemished professional record over 40 years as a practising solicitor. “He is now 65, has retired from practising as a solicitor and is currently in ill health.”
He undertook to remove his name from the roll and not seek to return to work in the profession.
Mr Chittenden was also rebuked and agreed to pay to the SRA costs of £650.