A solicitor who received a caution for possessing a small number of indecent images of children has been suspended from practice for a year.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) accepted that Michael Anthony Loveridge had “stumbled” across the images, which were in the lowest category of severity.
Mr Loveridge was born in 1954 and qualified in 1980, practising in Clitheroe, Lancashire. The tribunal heard that due to the allegations and the impending tribunal hearing, he had been unable to obtain professional indemnity insurance for the current practising year and had had to dispose of his firm, paying £40,000 for run-off insurance.
In early 2015, he accepted the caution for possessing four category C images and one category C video of children.
The SDT noted that Mr Loveridge “had been looking for (legal) pornographic material but had not been searching for images of children”.
It continued: “Looking for legal images or depictions of persons described as ‘teenage girls’ or ‘cheerleaders’ carried a risk of straying into illegal images, which depicted children i.e. those under 18.
“The respondent was clearly culpable in the sense that he was responsible for his use of the internet, but the tribunal accepted that he had ‘stumbled’ into downloading illegal indecent images; finding such images had not been his aim.
“The tribunal noted in this regard that the respondent’s evidence was that all of the sites he visited were legal, and did not charge for obtaining images; further, he stated that the sites carried disclaimers to the effect that all of the models featured were over 18. It was understood that the relevant images did not involve young children or direct abuse, although those taking indecent photographs of girls in their mid-teens were being exploitative.
“The respondent’s conduct in choosing to view indecent images was planned, but obtaining the particular images which led to the caution had been an error which was not planned.”
Though the tribunal accepted that the solicitor’s offence was at the “least serious end” of the scale for such cases, “it was nevertheless a serious matter”.
“The public would expect a solicitor to be someone who could be trusted to the ends of the earth, and of the utmost probity and integrity. Given the huge damage done by child pornography, and the great importance of safeguarding the welfare of children, possession of images of the kind in question in this case could not be dismissed as being in any way minor matters. The respondent’s misconduct had damaged the reputation of the profession, as well as his own.”
The tribunal said Mr Loveridge had up until then enjoyed a long and unblemished career, and testimonials spoke highly of his abilities as a solicitor. It found he had shown “genuine insight into his misconduct” and disclosed the caution to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. “It was to the respondent’s credit that he had attended the tribunal and had been able to provide such good references.”
Nonetheless a year-long suspension was required to “properly reflect” the seriousness of the misconduct and the damage caused to the profession.
Since closing his firm Mr Loveridge had become an employed consultant solicitor with another firm, having disclosed the reason for closing his own practice. “The owner of that firm and a professional colleague had provided references for the respondent in full knowledge of the allegations against him. The firm for which he now worked had indicated that it would like to continue to employ him,” the SDT recorded.
In his mitigation, Mr Loveridge offered no excuse for his conduct, but his advocate said the solicitor had been dealing with problems in his personal life at the relevant time. “Due to those problems he had come to rely on the internet to cope with those parts of his personal life with which he was unhappy. The offence had occurred at a difficult part of the respondent’s life, when he had made poor decisions. This misconduct had not been repeated and was unlikely ever to be repeated.”
His advocate added that Mr Loveridge was conscious that “sensationalised” press coverage could follow the hearing.
“Whatever the nature of any press coverage which would follow, the respondent’s professional life and personal life had been severely damaged if not destroyed. The whole matter had caused the respondent great pain and distress and he wished to apologise to the tribunal.”