Sin bin win.
A junior solicitor has been spared dismissal from the profession for acting dishonestly after it was decided that her mental ill-health represented an exceptional circumstance which warranted a suspension instead of a strike-off.
Susan Orton, who worked at BPE Solicitors in Cheltenham, removed two copies of a hearing notification from a file in 2018 after she realised she had missed it. A secretary spotted the 2PQE solicitor feeding them into the office's locked confidential waste bins.
Orton told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal that she "filed" the documents in the bin in a moment of "sheer panic" after experiencing a "brain fade", reported the Law Gazette.
"I needed to get [the mistake] out of my sight as I thought the panic would go down. I filed it in the bin but the panic didn’t go", she said.
The tribunal heard that Orton had suffered panic attacks since childhood and was diagnosed with a mental health condition after the incident.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal cleared Orton of dishonesty over her initial "trivial mistake", but found that she acted dishonestly when she denied having seen the hearing notification in an email to the Employment Tribunal and in a meeting with her managers.
In mitigation for Orton, Geoffrey Williams QC said that because of the proceedings, Orton had been unable to secure an interview despite applying for 53 jobs, and had in the meantime been volunteering for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and two other charities.
A dishonesty offence would usually result in a solicitor being struck off, but the SDT ruled instead that Orton would be suspended for two and a half years, knocked down to six months based on the time she had already spent out of work. Her practising certificate will be subject to conditions and she was also ordered to pay £20,000 in costs.
It said the SRA and SDT had too often “failed to give sufficient recognition to the substantial impact of mental health issues on professionals", and hoped the SRA “takes note of the Orton outcome” when considering whether to pursue similar prosecutions in the future.
A 2019 survey of wellbeing conducted by the JLD found that mental ill-health was "rife at the junior end of the legal profession", with 48% of the 1,803 respondents saying they had experienced mental ill-health in the previous month, a proportion which was "significantly higher than the general population".
If you're a lawyer struggling with an error you've made, please consider contacting LawCare for mental health support.