A solicitor suspended for practising without insurance has blamed an admitted “administrative error” by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for triggering the events which led to it.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) approved an agreed outcome between the regulator and Rosemary Ann Joyce that she be suspended for three months and subject to conditions should she return to practice.
Ms Joyce, who qualified in 1994, was sole director of RJ Solicitors in Cleethorpes. The SDT heard that, after her existing insurer withdrew from the market in 2019, she was unable to secure new cover for the year starting on 1 October.
However, she failed to notify the SRA of this and continued to practice, taking on new clients and even telling the SRA at one point that she had cover from her previous insurer. The SRA closed down the firm in October 2020.
The SRA had previously conducted an investigation into the firm, which resulted a referral to the SDT in late 2018. However, the referral decision was rescinded on 23 May 2019. But Ms Joyce was not told “due to an administrative error”.
The mitigation she pleaded in the agreed outcome was that she was only given five weeks to find a new insurer.
“I was left in the position that I had to disclose the fact that there was an unfinished investigation against my firm,” she said. “This left me in the position that I was unable to find an insurance company that would insure my firm.”
Ms Joyce said she had not asked for updates on the investigation because “I did not wish to ‘poke the hornet’s nest’”.
It was not until a meeting with the SRA in September 2020 that she was told the previous case had been closed and only in April 2023, when she received the bundle for the SDT hearing, that she discovered she had not been told the referral had been rescinded because of an error.
“I am shocked that no one seems to have ‘joined the dots’ to work out that had I been advised on 23 May 2019 that the case had been rescinded, I would not have had to declare this on my insurance application which would undoubtedly have resulted in my firm being granted insurance…
“A small ‘administrative error’ has had a catastrophic effect on myself and my family.”
Ms Joyce argued that there was “a repeat pattern of neglect in respect for progressing my case throughout with many errors and delays being highlighted by me”.
She went on: “It seems that the regulator of the solicitors does not receive regulation itself and there are no consequences or repercussions for its neglect and breach of duty. While I have to lose my profession, all my monies and my family.”
Ms Joyce also admitted to multiple accounts rules errors, including failing to demonstrate the current balance on each client ledger or undertake periodic reconciliations of client accounts, from 2014.
The SRA said the state of the firm’s accounts were such that it could not say there were sufficient funds to match liabilities to clients. After money was returned to identified clients, £266,225 in unidentified funds was paid to the SRA Compensation Fund.
In her mitigation, Ms Joyce cited redacted medical evidence and explained she was “just coping” before the first SRA case started.
“Briefly I feel that matters went downhill for me about the time my father died in February 2016. This was roughly when the first case against me started when I was dealing with his death and looking after my grieving mother.”
She also had “some very difficult clients at that time and also I had no support”, she said.
Ms Joyce did not explicitly address in her mitigation why the firm continued to operate without insurance. She said she was “in deep shock at this time due to the traumas I had suffered as a result of the efforts of a client involved in one of my cases in late 2019”.
She explained: “He threw missiles at our office windows and sprayed clear liquid in our reception area. He was on drugs and had mental health issues and all this was very intimidating.
“The police were involved and I was given a number to call if he came near my office or my home and armed police would be deployed as he was seen as a threat.”
The SRA said the “only rational explanation” for practising without insurance “appears to have been that she was putting her own interests and the interests of the firm above the interests of her client”.
Ms Joyce was suspended for three months and ordered to pay costs of £14,280. On returning to practice, she cannot act as a manager or owner of a law firm or hold a compliance role.