Solicitors are to pay an extra £1.2m towards the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in 2023 after its existing landlord pulled the offer of a new lease, meaning it will have to relocate.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) approved the SDT’s operating budget of £4.3m for 2023 at an emergency meeting convened a few weeks after a £3.1m budget had initially been proposed, the same as the current year.
But then the SDT’s landlord withdrew the offer of a new 10-year lease with a five-year tenant’s only break clause.
SDT president Alison Kellett told the LSB – which has to sign off the tribunal’s budget – that it has since been able to agree in-principle terms for a new two-year lease with mutual rolling breaks operable on six months’ notice, no earlier than September 2023.
The tribunal appears to be working on the basis that it will be triggered then. Solicitors pay for the SDT through their practising fees.
Writing yesterday with confirmation that the new budget had been approved, LSB chair Dr Helen Phillips said it “encourages the SDT to view the requirement for new accommodation as an opportunity to consider new, innovative and potentially radical ways to deliver value for money for the solicitors’ profession while building its contribution to promoting the public interest”.
Ms Kellett said the SDT planned to reduce its footprint from 6,753 sq ft now to 5,000 sq ft, based on one less courtroom and less staff accommodation.
It will also consider various options, including separate administrative offices and hiring hearing venues or to have one permanent courtroom and hiring additional venues as required.
The latest SDT accounts show reserves at £850,000, including a “sitting day reserve” of £341,000. The tribunal estimated that fit-out costs for new premises would be £600,000 and said it would consider drawing on some of the latter reserve to contribute to the cost.
“Whilst it is what not the original intended purpose of these monies, the use of them in this way seems proportionate and appropriate in the circumstances,” said Ms Kellett.
She added that the SDT would only seek to draw down funds from the Law Society “once new premises have been identified and the actual costs of dilapidations, move and fit-out confirmed”.
Dr Phillips recounted that the LSB wanted the SDT to recognise the need to secure new accommodation as “an opportunity to radically consider whether the SDT needs permanent physical courtrooms”.
She explained: “It was suggested that having one courtroom or renting courtroom space as required was more in line with other tribunals. When deciding on the need for physical courtrooms, the board expects the SDT to use data on courtroom utilisation rate and effective sitting days to inform its decision making.”
The board also wanted the SDT to reduce the cost per court and develop “three or four key performance indicators for value for money which should be based on the assumption that
ongoing administrative costs can be reduced if required”.
The SDT also needed to learn lessons from what had happened and “what it might do differently next time, such as getting a lease agreed in writing and account for dilapidations on an ongoing basis”.
The papers before the LSB said SDT has confirmed potential liabilities of up to £354,000 for historic holiday pay and employers National Insurance contributions.
Most of this part of the papers was redacted but it could, at least in part, refer to the ruling secured by barrister Robin Somerville, who sat as a tribunal chair for the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
In 2020, an employment tribunal held that he was a worker under the Employment Rights Act 1996, despite being told that he was being appointed as an independent contractor. This meant he was entitled to sickness and holiday pay.
The ruling was upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and, earlier this year, by the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court recently refused permission to appeal.
Mr Somerville has said the ruling could cost regulators millions of pounds in claims across professional tribunals, including the SDT.