The number of solicitors found to be dishonest and struck off rose in the past year, even though there has been a sharp fall in the number of applications made to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), according to its annual report.
Also up significantly were the expected costs of running the tribunal, with the budget for the year to December 2013 approved by the Legal Services Board almost £1m above the actual cost to the end of 2012, at £2.78m up from £1.88m.
Across all the categories of substantiated allegations against solicitors, “specified dishonesty and/or a failure to exercise probity, integrity and trustworthiness” was found in 31% cases in 2013, compared to 20% in 2012.
The SDT’s approach to punishment seems to have hardened. Orders striking solicitors off the roll increased by nearly half, from 52 to 75; a total higher than the five-year average of 69.
Although suspensions halved from 18 to nine, fixed period suspensions increased from 34 to 42. There were 20% fewer fines ordered – 81 compared to 102.
Applications to the tribunal fell to just 166 in the year to April 2013, a five-year low and 30% fewer than the 239 received by the tribunal in 2012. They involved a total of 168 practising solicitors compared to 284 last year.
However, at 276 days, the number of days the tribunal sat in 2013 was above the five-year average.
The drop in referrals to the SDT from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) was significant in the first four months of 2013, which at the time the SRA attributed to outcomes-focused regulation and a policy of engaging with firms over less serious regulatory breaches rather than automatically prosecuting.
The SDT has a 59:41 solicitor/lay member split and more than two-thirds of members (68%) are male.
Various factors accounted for the budget increase for 2013, most notably a refurbishment of the SDT’s offices, significantly increased staff costs, and provision for appeals relating to alternative business structures.
The annual report said the administrative cost of running the tribunal was the equivalent of £14.69 per practising solicitor in 2012, which was lower than any of the years since 2008.
Susan Humble, the clerk to the tribunal, said the drop in applications this year had “given us a welcome breathing space to make plans for continuous improvement carefully and methodically”.