Solicitor intercepted complaint about her work sent to firm’s COLP

Complaint: Email came into central account

A solicitor who intercepted a complaint about her sent to her firm’s compliance officer for legal practice (COLP), and then replied from his email address, has been struck off.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that while Elizabeth Nedin’s initial response “may well have been spontaneous and a panicked reaction”, continuing the concealment was dishonest.

Ms Nedin was based at Donoghues Solicitors, a trading name of SDMC Law, in Llanelli, Wales.

The SDT heard that emails to Donoghues were stored on a central computer that had one inbox, one sent box and one deleted folder. Each fee-earner would access it to see all emails sent to the firm, in order to find those sent to them.

“When responding to an email from the central computer, the IT set up marked the ‘sender’ as the person to whom the original email was addressed unless the fee-earner changed that setting to reflect their own email address.

“In short, it was possible for fee-earners to send emails in another person’s name.”

Ms Nedin was instructed by Person A, sole executor of one estate and joint executor of another, in relation to both estates.

Person A emailed a complaint about Ms Nedin to Mr SJ, director and COLP at Donoghues, in May 2019. She acknowledged it within an hour from the firm’s general email address.

Two weeks later, Ms Nedin sent Person A an email from SJ’s email address that told him to expect a full response the following day following a review of the file.

In a second email from SJ’s address 10 days later, she said: “Apologies that you have not received a response as the file has indeed been reviewed.”

In fact, Ms Nedin had not reported the complaint to SJ and the complaints process had not started.

Her misconduct was discovered the following day when SJ’s secretary checked the deleted folder on the central computer and noticed an email sent from his account entitled ‘Letter of complaint’.

She was suspended and then dismissed.

Ms Nedin accepted she had broken the rules, telling the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that she panicked when she first saw the complaint.

“I then could not bring myself to read it as I knew that I had been unjustifiably slow in dealing with the file and the complaint was likely going to be a summing-up of how poor the quality of my work was and I would be confronted, in black and white, with the truth that I was trying my best to ignore…

“Every day, I hoped that I would have the strength or courage to deal with it the next day and speak to [SJ] but I did not… I hid the complaint from [SJ] knowing that this was of course the worst thing I could have done.”

As evidence of her state of mind, Ms Nedin pointed out that she could have permanently deleted the emails but did not, “leaving an opportunity to be found out”.

Her decision-making was affected by deteriorating mental health at the time, she added, but did not provide medical evidence to back this up.

The SDT said Ms Nedin was “motivated by self-preservation and the reputation of the firm”.

“Whilst her initial acknowledgment of the complaint… may well have been spontaneous and a panicked reaction, her subsequent misconduct in perpetuating the concealment represented a series of repeated dishonest steps planned over a period of 23 days which served to hide the true position.”

The SDT said Ms Nedin’s misconduct was aggravated by the fact it was dishonest, calculated, repeated and deliberate. However, she was of good character, showed “genuine insight”, made admissions and “co-operated with all concerned”.

The tribunal said her reasons for “disengaging” with the SRA in September 2021, when it was going to facilitate a medical assessment, were not known and the hearing took place in her absence.

Ms Nedin was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £11,400.

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