Tribunal refuses to allow return to practice for suspended solicitor


SDT: Solicitor needed more training

A solicitor suspended from practice almost a decade ago has been refused re-entry to the profession due to doubts about whether he is ready for it.

Marlan Higgins failed to prove to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that he had recovered his mental health – having said that problems with it contributed to his misconduct – or that he was ready to advise on employment law, a new area of practice for him.

Mr Higgins, who qualified in 2002, ran a firm in Oxfordshire called Legal Advice Direct Solicitors, which ceased trading in October 2009.

He failed to provide the firm’s final accountant’s report the following year or respond to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) correspondence about it. He was suspended indefinitely in December 2012.

Applying to lift the suspension, Mr Higgins told the SDT he had been suffering from poor mental health at the time of the misconduct, which was also why he did not attend the 2012 hearing.

“He also had a number of serious problems in his personal life at that time, which had caused him significant difficulties. This had reached the point where he feared going into the office or taking telephone calls.”

However, he had now recovered his health and was ready to return to the profession, although he did not provide any supporting medical evidence.

In recent years, he had been working for NHS Blood and Transplant and was also a UNISON branch secretary, through which he went on a three-day course on employment law last November.

He intended to practice in employment law, rather than family, domestic violence and homelessness as he had previously, work he said had “contributed to his mental health difficulties”.

Mr Higgins said he was “ashamed” and deeply sorry for his misconduct. Although no clients had suffered any loss when the firm closed, he accepted that creditors had.

The SDT noted that Mr Higgins was not accused of dishonesty or lack of integrity; but failing to co-operate with the regulator was “a fundamental breach of a solicitor’s obligations”.

It went on: “The tribunal had enormous sympathy with the applicant’s situation in relation to his health, as indeed it did for anyone experiencing pressures of work and mental health difficulties.

“The tribunal recognised that there was a need to protect and support anyone going through mental health difficulty. The tribunal was quite clear that suffering from mental health illness should not prevent anyone from being part of the profession.”

However, in the absence of medical evidence, it could not assess whether Mr Higgins’ health had recovered sufficiently to withstand the pressures of practice. Employment law could be “stressful and contentious”, the SDT said.

There was also no evidence that Mr Higgins had undergone any training in employment law beyond the course last year, which was in the context of his work as a trade union steward “and not with a view to practising as a solicitor”.

After more than nine years out of the profession, he would require “significant and substantial training”, particularly given his intention to start in a new area of law.

He could have worked in the profession in recent years with the SRA’s permission and that would have provided evidence of the safeguards or supervision needed to support him.

Refusing the application, the SDT said: “The tribunal considered that the public would harbour concerns about the applicant returning to practice if such an application was granted notwithstanding lack of adequate supporting evidence, particularly in relation to health, training and employment in the profession.”

Mr Higgins was ordered to pay costs of £2,100.




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