A solicitor suspended for a year after a tribunal ruled he had acted dishonestly in signing a declaration on behalf of one of his firm’s directors has successfully challenged the decision.
The High Court found that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) had not applied the test for dishonesty properly and said the sanction imposed on Peter Maxfield-Martin should be reconsidered.
Last autumn, the SDT held that Mr Martin, who qualified in 1989, filled out the reaccreditation form for the Law Society’s mental health panel so that it appeared that Gareth Jones, a director of Gomer Williams & Co in Llanelli, had certified that the information it contained was correct.
But the SDT said his culpability was “low” because he had acted on Mr Jones’s “implied authority”.
Further, the evidence of another solicitor, Cara Young, showed “a pattern whereby Mr Jones would not complete the declarations himself but would allow others to do so on his behalf”, although the tribunal distinguished the situation by saying he had in that case been given the chance to review the application.
The Law Society initially refused Mr Martin’s application and he was dismissed the following day. He successfully appealed the Law Society decision after it agreed that he had implied authority.
The test for dishonesty required the tribunal first to ascertain Mr Maxfield-Martin’s actual state of mind and then to decide whether his conduct was honest by the standards of ordinary decent people.
Mr Justice Soole found that the tribunal identified the solicitor’s state of mind as being that he believed Mr Jones had authorised him to act as he did but he also knew that the declaration was false.
“Accordingly, both those aspects of his state of mind fell for consideration at the second stage of the objective question. However, when it turned to that question, the tribunal gave no real weight to the first of those two findings.”
The judge said Mr Maxfield-Martin’s belief that he had authority was “potentially relevant to the second stage objective test for dishonesty”.
Further, the SDT “identified differences with the case of Ms Young which were of no material significance”.
Soole J said: “In the absence of any criticism of Ms Young (or [Mr Jones]) in the circumstances of her re-accreditation application, I can see no basis for the tribunal to have reached the conclusion which it did.”
This all meant that the findings against Mr Maxfield-Martin of dishonesty, lack of integrity and failing to uphold trust in the profession could not be sustained
He emphasised that his decision was based on the “very particular facts of this case and having regard to the particular reasoning of the tribunal”.
The judge stressed: “The imperative obligation for solicitors to ensure that forms such as this are completed with the utmost care and accuracy is undiminished.”
The SDT also found that the solicitor acted with a lack of integrity by threatening his then former firm with blowing the whistle on alleged breaches of its legal aid contract in a bid to have it withdraw its complaint to the Law Society about him. He did not make good on the threat.
Mr Maxfield-Martin did not appeal this finding and, as the sanction handed out by the SDT had been for both offences, Soole J remitted the case to the SDT to consider the sanction afresh.