An ex-junior lawyer who was struck off after lying about losing a briefcase with work documents is appealing the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal's decision.

Claire Matthews was a newly-qualified solicitor at Capsticks when she lost a briefcase with sensitive documents when she accidentally left it on a train.

Matthews tried to retrieve the case from the station's lost property department. She did not immediately report the loss to her supervisor at work, saying instead that she had left the documents at home. She confessed just over a week after the incident.

At the SDT hearing, Matthews said that the mistake had caused her overwhelming distress and anxiety. She ended up drinking alcohol "to excess" and at her lowest point "resorted to drinking bleach in an attempt to end her life".

The SRA prosecuted Matthews on the basis of dishonesty and acting without integrity, and the SDT found in the SRA's favour and struck Matthews off the roll. The SRA originally tried to claim costs of £55,000 (Fieldfisher's whopping legal fees), but the tribunal deemed it to be excessive and knocked it down to £10,000. 

It emerged during the hearing that the SRA did not impose a penalty on Capsticks, the SRA's usual go-to legal advisor, for failing to report Matthews' conduct to the SRA at the time. The regulator instead wrote a nice letter to Capsticks to remind the firm of its reporting obligations.


Soft slap

The SRA gets tough with its legal advisor.


Matthews is now appealing the decision to strike her off, saying that the tribunal failed to investigate and weigh up the impact of the incident on her mental health. She is also arguing that the decision to strike her off  was unduly harsh and excessive as the tribunal failed to take into account numerous factors including her good character, that no harm occurred, that she did not gain financially or professionally, and that it was a one-off incident.

The former junior lawyer has said that her financial means are extremely limited as she is barred from the legal profession, and is currently working in an NHS call centre. Her legal team at Leigh Day and Deans Court Chambers are acting pro bono, but Matthews is seeking to raise funds in case the appeal is unsuccessful and she ends up having to pay the SRA's costs.

Matthews is aiming to raise £40,000 to cover potential costs via a GoFundMe page. At the time of going to press, the page has raised just over £8,000. Any surplus of costs raised on the funding page will go to the mental health charity LawCare, Matthews said.

"I feel it is important that this appeal is seen through so as to help highlight mental health in the legal profession," said Matthews, "and the devastating effect it can have when it impacts on careers."

Leigh Day's head of the regulatory and disciplinary team, Gideon Habel, said "the case raises important issues, including about how we in the profession, regulators, tribunals and courts deal with mental ill-health in the legal profession."

The SRA and Capsticks both declined to comment.

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Comments

Change the culture 01 May 20 09:44

Donating. My memories of being an NQ in a top 50 law firm make me feel nauseous. Too much responsibility and work coupled with unsupportive and incapable partners (and therefore lack of support culture in the organisation). An environment of fear to show any weakness or make a single mistake. No guidance whatsoever and a totally kill or be killed approach to getting your work done/right.

On top of that I had to navigate avoiding the unwanted 'attentions' of a partner who had a large influence in the firm.

I recall vividly one night when I was just over 1 PQE. It was late, around 11pm, and I probably hadn't had more than 6 hours sleep in the last week. I sat absolutely paralysed in fear at my computer as I couldn't think how to write an email I had to get out. I couldn't type or talk and started shaking uncontrollably. A barrister was working in my room at the time on one of the cases I had been put in charge of. She had recognised for some time that I was working under extreme pressure. She almost called an ambulance as she thought I was having a seizure.

I know it was just sheer luck that I didn't make a simple stupid mistake like leaving a briefcase on the train during my NQ and 1 PQE years. Looking back, if I had, I have no idea what I would have done. I am pretty sure I would have felt suicidal and would not be thinking clearly. This is no reflection on my integrity as a lawyer, but the toxic environment endemic throughout the legal profession that can drive junior lawyers to the very edge. Looking at the SDT judgment it is clear this junior had suffered pressure as an NQ in a previous role. She had just started a new job looking for a fresh start. She was also moving home at the same time. One stupid mistake where no one got hurt but the applicable client was the SRA and her entire career is over. I can't imagine it.

 

Catshits 01 May 20 09:59

The real story here is about the SRA and its bizarre decision to appoint a sole legal adviser rather than a panel and then let that legal adviser get off scot-free for a deliberate breach.

 

Gobblepig 01 May 20 10:04

She lied about losing confidential material and delayed reporting her mistake.

I think the SRA has all sorts of questions to answer about its relationship with the likes of FF and Capsticks, and the costs charged here appear exorbitant, but it is hammered into you from day 1 that you should own up to mistakes immediately, and that honesty and integrity go to the heart of our profession. The strike-off seems to be justified (unlike the original costs bill). 

frankartisan 01 May 20 10:13

Could it be possible that the SRA has one rule for some and another for its advisers? 

anon 01 May 20 10:19

The SRA have lost the respect of much of the profession. There are too many of these cases where they come down really hard on junior lawyers who have made mistakes under pressure and at the same time, failed to properly investigate allegations of dishonest behaviour by senior management of major law firms. 

Anon 01 May 20 10:22

Pretty terrible stuff and clearly it put her under huge emotional strain. Out of interest though, is she Corona free?

Lydia 01 May 20 10:56

I support her case (no pun intended) - it went to far. A fine or a telling off would have been sufficiently particularly when you compare it with other cases.

However we do need to hammer home to students in law school that honesty is absolutely needed always and that we operate to higher standards than the general public. As I said to my 5 year olds if you tell a lie you dig a hole and it gets harder and harder to get out of it. Best to be truthful in the first place as we all make mistakes.

Mr Proportionality 01 May 20 11:13

And yet this tool got a slap on the wrist for actual fraud...

https://www.rollonfriday.com/news-content/exclusive-asia-managing-partner-offshore-firm-harneys-has-misconduct-conviction

 

My Two Cents 01 May 20 11:31

She didn't come clean immidiatley. I completely understand that is the silent point.

As someone who supervises juniors, you should be looking out for them, when they are under strain. If you actually speak to someone as a human each day the clues are there. We may be lawyers, but I entreat anyone in a management or more senior position, please be kind, compassionate and foster an open culture. Don't talk about it, do it. Get the coffee and biscuits out, have zooms 'just because' and be nice. Not fashionable, I know, but there but for the grace of god go we all. I was terrified of my supervisors when I was younger and swore I would never be that person. Yes we are all busy- that's a given- but you can still be decent.

StarfleetcaptainData 01 May 20 11:34

If the reporting is right, there appears to be an SRA double standard? 

Person not telling their firm that a briefcase had been lost = struck off.

Firm not telling the SRA that one of their staff lost a briefcase = a letter.

The SRA needs to explain this, and how the firm can remain a sole 'trusted' legal advisor. This is about the profession's confidence in the SRA. In particular, junior lawyers need to know that the same standards apply at all levels of the profession.

 

Anonymous 01 May 20 11:40

I've chipped in £20. The SRA hasn't covered itself in glory in recent years with its remorseless pursuit of juniors while leaving senior lawyers untouched. The only way it seems likely to change its behaviour will be if it's taken to task on these decisions.

Yes, there's a dishonesty issue here, which is extremely serious. However, we should also take into account (1) the mental health (and possible management) issues which played a role; and (2) the incentive that rulings like this create for people never to come clean and to double down on their dishonesty to save their careers. 

Also agreed with the wonderfully named Gobblepig and Catshits- the SRA's panel appointments and relationships with the firms it appoints do not come across as being at all healthy or well-managed.

Anonymous 01 May 20 12:08

She had a shocker here. 

 

Suspension would be appropriate. A strike off seems excessive. 

Magic Granddad 01 May 20 12:28

She should have faced a sanction but struck off that is excessive. It seems her firm hung her out to dry as well.

I have donated and so should most of us.

I left a file on a tube train in the 1990s then chased the train down the Central Line (in another tube train - not on the track) to its depot it was horrendous.

anon 01 May 20 15:15

What did the SRA do to the Capsticks partner which Roll on Friday reported was sacked last year for inappropriate behaviour? Have they been struck off given the sanctions Capsticks have pursued in similar cases for the SRA?

Realist 01 May 20 16:58

And Lord Lester QC sexually hassassed a woman and abused his position, and yet was not censured by the BSB. Double standards.

A Non 01 May 20 18:13

Sad reading, and if every young person who made a mistake had it being career ending, then most people wouldn't be employed.  Maybe there is more but seems a bit extreme.

Do Capsticks count as top 50?

Mr Proportionality - is this going to become a Meme, like Andrew Neal in Private Eye?

Anonymous 01 May 20 18:30

I donated. The decision is unduly harsh and disproportionate. In addition, it appears that double-standards have been applied if 'unduly harsh' has to be the general standard. 

FluffnBluff2 01 May 20 18:41

Donated also. This is a ridiculous overreach by the SRA / SDT characteristic of their recent forays into the grey regions. 

Sir Enid 01 May 20 19:16

What a shame for this Junior Lawyer. 
 

So the SRAs only Panel firm Capsticks  is not required by them to explain the firm’s systems and procedures to safeguard material and protect it eg providing lockable briefcases, storing it electronically and encrypting material which could have prevented the whole debarcle. Nor for its failure to adhere to the Principles  it is tasked by SRA to prosecute others for - namely being open honest and co operating with the regulator. Instead they failed to report this and only came clean when their hand was forced. Nor the fact Junior was clearly in such a toxic environment at this firm she didn’t feel it was a safe space to come clean to them. 
 

But despite this the SRA chose not to prosecute them or at very least conduct an investigation into Capsticks. 
No doubt the SRA having put all their eggs in one basket by stupidly and nepotistically only having one Panel, either risk their multi million pound contract with them and potential challenge and headache of transferring cases Capsticks dealt with -by looking at their conduct and fitness to conduct SRA work, and  the consequential reputational issues, board questions and media attention which would flow if they had held them to account fairly and properly. Or they let a lone unrepresented overworked Junior take the fall. 

 

Tough choice for SRA clearly.

 

Anonymous 01 May 20 20:23

Donated and so should everyone.

The way that the SRA, itself overdue an invistigation into its managment and hiring processes, treats juniors is despicable. 

Meanwhile, senior lawyers/managment get off pretty much scot free for fraud and sexual assault.

She lied about a mistake she made. Dishonest maybe, but there are different levels of dishonesty. This is not the same as stealing money or selling inside information and lying about it. It was lying about a mistake due to an immense amount of pressure and a momentary moment of panic (which we have all felt at one point as an NQ).

I once let a court deadline lapse shortly after qualifying and it was pretty much the lowest point in my career. I sat in the bathroom for over an hour thinking it was all going to be over. Fortunately I had a good supervisor who immidiately noticed that something was wrong with me and who proceeded to help me fix the issue rather than bite my head off. 

Anonymous 02 May 20 00:37

I'm sorry but this is only partly the fault of the SRA and the SDT. The other major culprit here are the courts who have imposed a rule that literally any dishonesty warrants strike-off. We need to start looking into the judges making appellate decisions.

Anonymous 02 May 20 03:29

A few weeks before this hit the headlines, I thought I had left a bundle of highly confidential documents on the train.

The documents were in one of those plastic report covers. Slippery AF. And I thought it had slipped out one of my bags on the train home (lawyer - packhorse. Same same).

Anyway, was genuinely some of the darkest hours of my life. There were tears - and I haven't cried in 20 years. I couldn't focus, could barely hold a conversation. I assumed I'd be sacked, my career permanently impacted. I've never had a panic attack in my entire life, but I hyperventilated to the point I actually fainted. I don't think you can really comprehend how it feels until you do it. 

My non-lawyer wife couldn't understand why it was, in my words, "the worst thing I've ever done."

"Just don't tell anyone, " she said. "There's a good chance work will never find out... Whoever finds them will just bin them probably." But I knew due to our regulatory requirements I would have to own up and face the consequences. However, that decision was made with the benefit of 4 years PQE, as opposed to this poor NQ. Who knows whether I'd have reached the same conclusion 4 years ago. Possibly not. I certainly don't think this girl deserves the punishment she received. 

Turns out the documents had slipped out of my bag... but in the car on the drive home from the station, and then lodged right under the front passenger seat. Biggest relief of my life finding them.

 

Scep Tick1 04 May 20 08:32

It's not the losing the bag.  (Although if it were your confidential documents lost you might be a tad upset.  Especially as according to the judgment they contained sensitive personal data.)

It's that she said a) she had the docs at home, which was a lie, and b) she left them on the train when coming back INTO work a week later, which was a lie.

It is the absolute fundamental 100% basic position that solicitors should never ever lie.  That's how things like the court work.  There has to be trust.  As Tom Bingham said, to the ends of the earth.  Anyone got a cogent argument against him?

Scep Tick1 05 May 20 07:33

Well, I hope none of you downvoters are solicitors.  Because you're ignorant of the most important Court of Appeal decision applying to the profession.  Bolton v Law Society, check it out.

"It is important that there should be full understanding of the reasons why the Tribunal makes orders which might otherwise seem harsh. There is, in some of these orders, a punitive element… But often the order is not punitive in intention… In most cases the order of the Tribunal will be primarily directed to one or other or both of two other purposes. One is to be sure that the offender does not have the opportunity to repeat the offence…

The second purpose is the most fundamental of all: to maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession as one in which every member, of whatever standing, may be trusted to the ends of the earth. To maintain this reputation and sustain public confidence in the integrity of the profession it is often necessary that those guilty of serious lapses are not only expelled but denied re-admission."

hmm 06 May 20 14:09

The young solicitor was dishonest and that needs to be punished. However the SRA and STD lack consistency and proportionality.

They might do well to remember Williams v SRA 2017, whether or not we agree with that decision.

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