A solicitor who was “less than wholly frank” about his disciplinary record while on oath in the High Court has escaped with a fine from the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The tribunal accepted that William John Gregory Osmond’s action had done “little harm” in the proceedings.
Mr Osmond, who founded two-partner City firm Osmond & Osmond with his father in 2002, was admitted in 1979.
The tribunal heard that while appearing as a witness in a High Court dispute between two former clients in 2011, Mr Osmond answered in the negative a question from counsel about whether in the course of his career any allegation of a breach of the code of conduct had ever been upheld against him.
He had, in fact, been suspended from practice for two years from February 1995, for misconduct in relation to failing to comply with the Solicitors Accounts Rules by drawing money from the client account and using it for his own purposes.
In April 2014, after being advised to do so by solicitors in subsequent litigation brought against him and three others by one of the former clients, Mr Osmond made a self-report to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
In a witness statement in the second proceedings, he apologised to the court, explaining : “This was inexcusable and I deeply regret it. I had had a difficult time in the witness box, and felt that I had been treated somewhat unfairly. I did not fully understand the grounds of the criticisms that were being made of my conduct By this stage, I was just desperate to get out of the box. The question came out of the blue.
“I found myself in a crowded room, I was caught completely unawares by the question and counsel was clearly expecting my answer to be ‘No’. I couldn’t face what I thought would be endless questions if I answered ‘Yes’, and that is why I untruthfully said ‘No’.”
The SRA initially charged Mr Osmond with three counts, but withdrew two, which respectively alleged a lack of integrity and “knowingly or recklessly” misleading the court. This left an allegation that he had “behaved in a way that is likely to diminish the trust the public places in him or the profession”. He admitted the allegation.
In a curious twist, it emerged that Mr Osmond had been wrongly advised that he had a duty to self-report, because that duty had not been in effect at the time. Further, although he had understood the question to be a general one about his disciplinary record, on one construction Mr Osmond did not mislead the court by denying he had ever breached the code of conduct, because it had only come into being in 2007.
Giving judgment, the tribunal said: “Whilst it was true that the respondent’s actions had been spontaneous and a split-second decision had been taken by him to give a less than wholly frank answer in evidence, the respondent had been a solicitor giving evidence on oath and was at the time of the events in question a very experienced practitioner…
“[However], it appeared to the tribunal, from the submission of the advocates, that little harm had been done in the court proceedings as a result of the respondent’s less than frank answer.”
In mitigation, it observed Mr Osmond had self-reported and his action was “on the spur of the moment in difficult circumstances and once the reply had been given he could not go back upon it. It was an aberration made in an instant which was irretrievable.
“It was obvious to the tribunal that the respondent had a deep regret for his action, had said that it was a ‘great mistake’ and had apologised for it.”
But the tribunal rejected the submission of Mr Osmond’s barrister, Greg Treverton-Jones QC, that a reprimand was appropriate.
It recorded: “This was not a minor breach of regulation but a serious matter where a solicitor had been less than wholly frank in an answer given under oath in judicial proceedings. Ordinary members of the public would expect a solicitor to be frank, transparent and complete in the giving of evidence.”
In conclusion, the tribunal said that “neither the maintenance of the reputation of the profession or the protection of the public required that the respondent be suspended from or removed from practice as a solicitor”.
But to reflect “the serious harm caused to the reputation of the profession by [his] actions”, Mr Osmond was fined £10,000, payable immediately, plus costs of £6,000.