Thursday, January 12, 2006

Crooked lawyers who keep working

A damning report on the discipline of dishonest and criminal practitioners broadcast on Channel 4's Dispatches earlier this month has led to a great deal of confusion.
No one at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) will comment on the programme's claim that more than half of all solicitors found guilty of misusing clients' money have been allowed to continue practising. Barrie Marsh, the SDT president, speaking on the film, also seemed out of line with his own organisation when he said he was "amazed" that solicitors were not struck off for criminal offences of dishonesty.
Despite the peculiar silence of the SDT, the Law Society is surprisingly forthright. With both solicitors and lay people on its panel, the tribunal is independent of the Law Society, which, together with the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, brings about 200 cases a year against offending practitioners. In 1997, out of 182 cases, 58 solicitors were struck off. David McNeill, the Law Society spokesman, says: "Our view is clear. Any solicitor who is guilty of dishonesty or a serious criminal offence should be struck off. We have been shocked by many of the findings of the SDT."
Dispatches looked at a sample of 200 solicitors most recently brought before the tribunal, of which 78 were found to have mishandled clients' money. Most remained on the roll of solicitors. Four cases were highlighted in the programme. One examined the tribunal that suspended Terence Mitchell from practising for 12 months after he was imprisoned for a £250,000 mortgage fraud. The Law Society then successfully appealed that the penalty was too lenient and though Mitchell was then struck off, he continues to work as a clerk. He was secretly filmed advising reporters who posed as clients without telling them that he was not a solicitor. "A solicitor who has been struck off is barred by the regulations from seeing clients and in the light of the programme we will be looking at all the issues raised," says Mr McNeill, who is, however, critical of the programme for blurring the boundaries between the Law Society and the SDT. He claims that Dispatches unfairly attacked the society for decisions that are in the tribunal's domain and cites the successful appeal to the High Court in the Mitchell case as proof of this, as well as creating a precedent that the SDT will have to follow.
He adds: "If one solicitor is continuing to practise who should have been struck off, that is a worry.
"Our regulations are very tough, but we do not make the final decisions. We are the prosecuting authority."
In another case the tribunal fined Tony Darnell who was was convicted of forgery in the Crown Court. The tribunal still did not strike him off the roll when he appeared before it, having disregarded a ruling that prevented his appearing as a solicitor in court. He then became a leading criminal practitioner in Stockport, but was eventually struck off after being convicted of drug-dealing and sentenced to 11 years in jail.
Further damaging the public image of solicitors, already tarnished by criticism of fees and the standard of service offered to clients, the affair is clearly creating animosity between the Law Society and the SDT. One society insider would like to see the tribunal thrown out of the society's premises so that the public gets the message that the two organisations are run separately.
In financial terms, though, the Solicitors' Indemnity Fund (SIF), an insurer for solicitors for client compensation claims, has more to lose than most through crooked practitioners. Sharon Bolton, the spokeswoman, says: "It is in everyone's interest that there is no dishonesty in the profession. To the extent that the numbers of claims against solicitors are high, we have an interest in reducing them."
She points out, however, that "the number of claims arising from dishonesty is not huge".
Between 1994 and 1998 only 6 per cent of claims by value against the fund involved the dishonesty of a partner in a practice. A further 1 per cent involved the dishonesty of an employed solicitor. The rest are to do with malpractice, such as negligence.
Despite these limited numbers, the SIF will, when it receives a claim, report any reasonable doubts about honesty to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. "Last year," Ms Bolton says, "we reported 93 claims to the OSS because we had a suspicion of dishonesty."
Most practitioners have an interest in seeing tough penalties meted out to crooks, who undermine public confidence. Indeed, it is solicitors who are being asked to pay ever greater amounts in indemnity premiums to cover claims by clients.
The Law Society is unequivocal. Mr McNeill says: "We would not want any rotten solicitor to have the impression that he or she can get away with it."
But so long as the SDT stays silent, there will be disquiet as practitioner and public confidence in the regulation of solicitors is weakened.


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