The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has struck off a solicitor who forged correspondence with the Legal Aid Agency, but said he still had “something to offer to the public and providers of legal services generally”.
In an unusual coda to its ruling , the tribunal said that the risks that had led to Mark Byron Smeed’s dishonest acts “might be capable of control with the implementation of protective measures if an appropriate firm were found to welcome [him] into their employment”.
Mr Smeed, born in 1970 and qualified in 1994, worked at Croydon firm Atkins Hope and was found to have faked a letter and e-mail purportedly sent to the Legal Aid Agency chasing progress on a client matter.
After it came to light, he admitted his wrongdoing and said it was “an attempt to avoid a formal complaint by the client”.
The SDT recorded that Mr Smeed said he was carrying an increasingly heavy workload at the time and the situation was getting more and more stressful.
“He was working extremely hard and his caseload, which was primarily public or children work, was starting to come under the strain of court deadlines. He agreed that there had been delay on his part in progressing this client’s matter due to all the other demands on his time. It was against this deteriorating background that he created the letter and e-mail which formed the basis of the allegation.
“The application was ultimately processed by the LAA and the client’s certificate transferred. The client did not suffer any financial loss and there was no financial impropriety. He had accepted that he had acted wrongly and unprofessionally on that occasion in early 2014, for which he was extremely sorry.
“The firm’s thorough internal investigation had not revealed any further cases and no issue arose in terms of the court being misled.”
The tribunal was clearly sympathetic to Mr Smeed but despite scrutinising whether there were “exceptional circumstances” which mitigated against the usual sanction in such a situation of a strike-off, it concluded “with some sadness” that there were not.
It criticised the delay in the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) bringing the case to the tribunal and noted that Mr Smeed had not sought to avoid responsibility for his conduct.
However, its “sympathy” had to be counterbalanced against the dishonest conduct found proved against him. This was “inexcusable” and went to “the core of the trust and confidence that the public are entitled to expect from a solicitor and the solicitors’ profession generally”.
The tribunal, chaired by SDT president and former Law Society president Ed Nally, then continued that – while what happened to him in the future was a matter for the SRA – it believed “the risks that had led to the dishonest acts might be capable of control with the implementation of protective measures if an appropriate firm were found to welcome the respondent into their employment with supervision and other appropriate restrictions and with the approval of the SRA”.
It continued: “Approved employment, albeit not as a solicitor, within a legal entity or law firm was a possibility provided that the respondent could obtain appropriate support from a potential employer.
“The tribunal was mindful that the respondent was in his mid-40s with long years ahead of him, all being well, when he would wish to explore employment opportunities. It seemed to the tribunal that he had something to offer to the public and providers of legal services generally subject to there being practical, measured safeguards in place.”