A record number of solicitors have been either struck off or suspended, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has revealed.
Some 79 solicitors were removed from the roll in the year to 30 April 2011, compared to 84 in the previous 12 months, while 51 were suspended (up from 44).
Combined it makes the highest number since at least 2001, which is the furthest back Legal Futures has been able to trace.
The SDT’s annual report said that 16 solicitors were suspended indefinitely, and 29 for a year or more. There was a big fall in the number of solicitors received fines, however, down 31% to 119, while reprimands also dropped from 49 to 36. Some 26 solicitors avoided any sanction, up from 15 the year before.
Fines ranged from £500 to £20,000 and a total of £765,000 was imposed. Fines are payable to HM Treasury.
The fall in the number of fines and reprimands could be attributed to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s new powers to reprimand solicitors, or fine them up to £2,000, without recourse to the tribunal. These came into being in June 2010 and were used for the first time in January. Solicitors have the right to appeal these sanctions to the tribunal, but it is too early to assess the impact this will have on the tribunal’s workload.
For the time being the report shows a sharp drop in the number of applications received by the SDT, which again could be because of the new powers. In the year to April 2010 361 solicitors were referred to the tribunal; for 2011 it was 245. The figures also indicate that those cases which are referred are more complex, as the tribunal sat for 306 hearing days, compared to 232 the previous year.
Two-thirds of allegations substantiated against solicitors were either accounts rules breaches (33%) or other breaches (34%). Failures – such as to pay counsel’s fees or provide costs information – accounted for 17% of allegations. The number of findings of dishonesty and/or a failure to exercise probity, integrity and trustworthiness, stayed virtually static at 20%.
Examples of conduct which led to a striking-off included: dishonestly misappropriating clients’ money; criminal convictions; charging success fees in circumstances where the tribunal found it was improper to do so; grossly misleading clients; and failing to discharge professional duties honestly and reliably.
The report for the first time includes performance statistics against targets agreed with the Legal Services Board and showed it missing them, particularly the goal to determine 70% of cases within six months of the issue of proceedings. Over the year the SDT did this in 35% of cases.
The tribunal has also been preparing to receive appeals from decisions of the Solicitors Regulation Authority over alternative business structures. SDT president Jeremy Barnecutt wrote in the report that it is “ready to face the future and the challenges ahead with renewed strength and vigour”.