The boss of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has told junior lawyers that he is satisfied that its handling of the Claire Matthews case was “appropriate”.
Paul Philip, the regulator’s chief executive, also revealed that it is developing guidance on how it deals with health issues raised during disciplinary proceedings.
He was responding to a letter from Charlotte Parkinson, chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, who accused the SRA of mishandling the case of Ms Matthews, a junior solicitor struck off in March after lying over the course of a week about losing documents she was working on.
The case has sparked concern because of her evidence of how leaving her briefcase containing the documents on a train exacerbated mental health problems – to the point that she claimed she tried to kill herself as a result.
Ms Parkinson said that, on the facts as laid out by the Matthews tribunal ruling, “we are remarkably concerned that the SRA continued with its prosecution of a potentially suicidal person”.
Given the circumstances, she continued, “we do not believe that the SRA’s decision to prosecute was reasonable”.
Mr Philip said: “You will appreciate that there are ongoing appeal proceedings in that case. However, I can briefly confirm that I am satisfied that our handling of this case was appropriate…
“In this case, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is not about a solicitor leaving a briefcase on a train, but that the evidence of her colleagues was that she lied to them on a number of occasions about the matter.”
He sought to reassure Ms Matthews that it took seriously the broader issues she raised – such as junior lawyers working in toxic environments and/or hiding regulatory issues or being unable to speak out, out of fear.
“We have introduced rules which make it clear that we will not tolerate anyone we regulate attempting to prevent an individual from making a report, or to subject them to detrimental treatment for having done so…
“And if an individual is involved themselves in the conduct in question, that contextual mitigation, such as the person’s junior position, lack of control over events, and any fear of reprisals, will be taken into consideration by us when deciding on the appropriate outcome.”
In response to concerns about the prosecution of solicitors with mental health issues, Mr Philip said the SRA has drafted new guidance detailing how it deals with health issues raised in its proceedings.
“We aim to publish it shortly with a view to providing greater comfort and transparency for those who may be subject to regulatory procedures at a time when they are particularly vulnerable or unwell…
“In particular, it explains that expert medical evidence is not always required, and where it is necessary, the circumstances in which we would obtain this ourselves – which include where the solicitor in question is too unwell or is otherwise unable to obtain it themselves.”
It was not clear from the letter the extent to which this will cover mental health issues suffered by solicitors at the time of their misconduct, rather than prosecution.
Ms Matthews is trying to crowdfund £40,000 to cover the possible adverse legal costs of her appeal. She has so far raised £13,000 from nearly 500 donors.