Briefcase drama

A lost briefcase - the premise of suspenseful films and solicitor regulation


The SRA has dropped its case against Claire Matthews, the junior solicitor who was struck off for lying about losing a briefcase with client documents. 

Claire Matthews was a newly-qualified solicitor at Capsticks when she borrowed a colleague's briefcase to take work documents back home. She fell asleep on the train, leaving the briefcase behind.  

In March 2020, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal struck off Matthews. The SRA had alleged that the junior solicitor had failed to inform her firm, Capsticks, about losing sensitive documents for about a week, and allegedly "misinformed" colleagues about the whereabouts of the documents. Matthews, who represented herself at the initial hearing, denied the allegations.

At the time, the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society was critical of the decision and wrote to the SRA, saying it was "alarmed" to read Matthews' account of her mental health in the judgment.

In April 2020, Matthews appealed against the SDT's decision with the help of lawyers working pro bono - Gideon Habel and Emma Walker of Leigh Day, and barristers Mary O’Rourke QC, Mark Harries QC and Rosalind Scott Bell and Marianne Butler.

During the appeal, Matthews provided new medical evidence diagnosing conditions concerning her mental health. The SRA said that this evidence "had not been available to the SRA or the SDT in the earlier proceedings."

On the basis of the new medical evidence, the SRA agreed that the case should be remitted to the tribunal for redetermination. Matthews’ appeal was allowed by consent, and the SDT’s findings and orders against her were quashed and she was restored to the roll.

The SRA then obtained its own expert medical evidence and, along with the new medical evidence from Matthews, concluded that a rehearing of the case would not be in the public interest. There was no order as to costs. The long-running saga has concluded, with the SRA and Matthews agreeing to conditions being placed on her practising certificate.

“I hope that the outcome will help other junior solicitors who face similar, difficult situations, in knowing these decisions can sometimes be successfully challenged," said Matthews.

"I thank everyone who has kindly donated and offered their words of support, without it, I could never have envisioned the result," added Matthews. "I am sincerely grateful for all the hard work and effort put in by everyone involved.”

The Junior Lawyers Division said in a statement that it welcomed the SRA's conclusion, but added: "It is still a matter of great concern that Ms Matthews was only able to obtain this outcome through a combination of a legal team working pro bono, and a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs of appealing the decision." 

The JLD also said it hoped the outcome "indicates a shift of approach for the SRA going forward", noting that "since Ms Matthews case was heard in the SDT, both the SRA and the SDT have published guidance on health issues."

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Comments

Dearie 14 April 22 09:55

"the SRA and Matthews agreeing to conditions being placed on her practising certificate."

Which should always have been the outcome. What a waste of industry time, cost and an overall nuisance.

Cautious Optimist 14 April 22 11:25

Finally some good news for junior lawyers targeted by the SRA fresh after putting themselves through debt and anguish to get on the ladder. So nice to see lawyers coming together to give her the support she needed!

Warren 14 April 22 12:59

Dishonesty has no place in the profession.  She lied at the time, and then doubled-down and denied it again at the Tribunal hearing   Hopefully any firm she applies to in future will do the right thing and put her application form straight in the bin.

A crust of bread 14 April 22 14:11

The dishonesty did not relate to theft or fraud. She was not helping herself to the client account funds.  She told a fib about a missing  brief case. 

Bearing in mind how partners get away with far more serious matters it puzzled me and everyone else who supported her on why Capsticks and the SRA hung her out to dry.

Good luck to her.

As for Warren @1259 shame on you. 

Warren 14 April 22 15:32

Grow up.  She lost it through carelessness (which could happen to any of us) and then lied repeatedly, hoping she would get away with it.  Then, when she went to the tribunal, she lied about lying. 

The point is this - in a position of stress when her own interest was at stake she chose her own interests over her professional duty to her client.  Then, under oath and before a tribunal, she lied again.  How many failures to show integrity and do the right thing exactly do you need before you start to see a pattern?  There is no reason at all to assume that this is not reflective of what she will do if such a conflict of interest ever comes up again.

Let's remind ourselves of the actual reason she was struck-off (this is from the original RoF report, linked in the article above):

The junior lawyer did not report the loss to Capsticks in the week that followed. On one occasion she told a supervisor that she had left the documents at home. Another time, one week after the case had been missing, she sent an email to her supervisor saying that she had "inadvertently left the suitcase on the train" that morning as she was  "distracted by being unwell on the train". But the following day, she eventually confessed to her supervisor that the briefcase had been lost for over a week.

...

She denied that she lied to her colleagues. She said that she had not attempted to deceive or mislead her supervisor. Her email about the date she had left the suitcase on the train was ambiguous, she claimed. She also said she had sent the email in a state of anxiety and under the influence of alcohol.

However, the SDT found that Matthews had stated an untruth in her email stated and it lacked ambiguity. The tribunal held that she had acted dishonestly and breached the SRA's principles.  

Not in my profession thanks.  

I hate the office. I hate WFH. I hate everything. 14 April 22 15:59

Capsticks .... I feel a Panorama or Dispatches about this programme would be a good watch.  Or alternatively -- with C4 too busy adapting Nadine Dorries' oeuvre, perhaps ROF could crowdfund to let me make the first ROF documentary?

Anonymous 14 April 22 16:58

So we need to accept she was dishonest. She tried to cover up a mistake.

Strike off was within the discretion of the disciplinary tribunal. 

However, that is a very severe sanction for a junior.  A heavily restricted certificate alongside mandatory training would have been a fair punishment. 

Henry mills 15 April 22 02:40

The SRA prove themselves to be the total shambles they are once again. Whilst the human side of me is happy for this lady, the fact is she lied time and time again. I get it as we all have pressures that can lead to this happening but she had ample time to admit her mistake and chose not to. 

she lied and others get stuck off for less. If you use a disabled car parking badge you are gone. If you lie in a job interview you are gone. If you lie about taking a professional course you are gone. 
 

However, if you take client money and use it to pay your VAT bill (but replace it soon after) that is just a small fine. If you sign an incorrect witness statement that is a massive fine. If you accept a massive reverse premium for your lease and share it between the partners then go Bust, no drama. No sanction at all. 
 

I hope she goes on to have a good career and feel for her as the last 4 years must have been hell. However, what is our regulator doing and how have they put her through the mill for years only to drop it now. Surely we need them to provide clarity on their reasons for dropping it?

my parents pushed me so hard to become a lawyer until they realised it was a horrific industry full of posh cunts and regulated by bitter wankers who couldn’t make it in private practice.

happy Easter x 

 

 

 

Anon 15 April 22 10:27

Dishonesty has no place in the profession.

However, the most common form of dishonesty is ‘generous’ time recording, and failures to write off time that was unnecessary or didn’t advance the case. 
 

That dishonesty lies at the feet of greedy partners who drive staff to over-record time through excessive targets and threats of discipline if they don’t hit XXX hours. 
 

I wonder why nothing is ever done about that? Instead a headline grabbing SRA has been pursuing junior lawyers who don’t have the resources to fight back. Oh wait; did I just answer my own question?!!

Wildoats 15 April 22 15:59

I returned to private practice a few years ago after a decade or so in industry. This story shames the profession. The woman behaved like a child. The regulator treated her like one, but itself acted like a newly appointed school prefect exerting excessive and cruel treatment on a terrified junior with frankly peculiar zeal.

I have no difficulty understanding the overwhelming stress and fear the woman was experiencing. What baffles me is why firms tolerate, perpetuate even, this culture of fear and blame. It's infantilising.

Compare the NHS with aviation. A mistake in the former leads to silence, denial and years of litigation (ironically (if I recall) often to the benefit of the firm the lady worked for). In the latter, mistakes are aired, shared, analysed and the industry, collectively, takes steps to learn from and mitigate the risk of another event occurring due to the same cause.    

Speaking personally, when I've been a board member or a partner responsible for a team or a department, I was under no illusion where the buck stopped: with me. I wasn't really interested in success and good news stories; that's what I and my colleagues expected and we knew we could deliver them. I wanted to know about the problems. I was responsible and drilled it into my colleagues that the buck stopped with me. If problems, mistakes etc were brought to me as soon as they were detected or caused, the person responsible was part of the solution. They were never made to feel scared or, god forbid, so fearful that they felt they had no option but to lie. Everyone at work was an adult and was treated as one and expected to behave like one. The law is different. It amazes me that the potential cumulative brilliance of a firm of solicitors goes largely untapped. To have that much ability and drive under one roof, only to hobble it by cascading fear and blame down.

Mistakes happen. That's life. It's how you deal with them and how you stop them happening again that matters.

Does anyone think the dept head led a meeting to discover why she took work home? Why she fell sleep? Why lying preferable to her than honesty and resolution? Had it happened to anyone else (definitely in one way or another)? Was there an easy fix? Could she access the papers from home? If not, why not? Was there a capacity problem? Should they recruitment? Get a temp /ocum in? Was work evenly distributed?  I haven't a clue but it would seem sensible to me if the firm at least sought to discover why it happened, how prevalent the cause(s) are and how likely a reoccurrence is. 

That Warren chap is a bit of a worry. I hope his surname starts with a "T", because lets face, we all love a Warren T. Easter however is traditionally a time for celebration in the Leporidae family. It saddens me that our man is hopping mad, struggling to keep his hare on and seems all too willing to pass the buck. Then again he  might be a Bigwig, in which case perhaps he could lend me a Fiver?

   

Henry Mills 15 April 22 18:04

The bigger question is why she felt she had to lie. Clearly a pretty toxic working environment. But we see this time and time again. The profession is rotten and our regulator is a joke. Time for change 

DB 17 April 22 08:21

“The bigger question is why she felt she had to lie.”

Probably because she was afraid of losing her job (which is a management & procedures failure).

MissorMs 18 April 22 09:50

And Leigh Day represented her. The irony. Still mind blowing how their senior lawyers got let off with no sanctions whatsoever by the SDT regarding their conduct and the £31 million pound al-Sweady Inquiry. 

Anonymous 19 April 22 21:16

@Wildoats 15 April 22 15:59

The funny thing about root cause analysis, which is common in safety critical industry, is that the process nearly always shifts the blame to senior people.

Anon 22 April 22 07:51

My concern about this, from previous experience, is that solicitors frequently cite mental health when allegations like misconduct, underperformance or dishonesty are put to them. You could look at it and say that this may be because people who behave in that way are often under significant personal pressure. But, and I accept this is personal and anecdotal, in my experience it is often a cynical play of the mental health card and it really is not hard to get a doctor or psychologist to provide a broad mental health diagnosis. Fundamentally the concern here is that the solicitor concerned lied and proved herself dishonest. Why will it be different next time something goes wrong on a client file? 

Dave 22 April 22 12:33

The mental health card or discrimination card seems to trump everything nowadays; at our firm we won't sack shite people because we're terrified about what they'll claim and our firm is a geniunely nice place to work.

Anon 24 April 22 10:00

What amazes me is that none of the lawyers have made any comment on the 50 k charged by the SRA, which was later reduced to 10 k and no mention of overcharging at all. Is that not fraud. At a charge out rate of 250 per hour amounts to 200 hours of legal time, which is longer than the real time of the events. So leaving a brief case on the train. That will be 10 k please. Forgetting to tell her boss. Thats another 10 k please. Lying to her boss. Another 10 k please. Having the cheek to appeal. Thats another 20 k please. 

Those costs are the real crime in the case, and the lawyers who have overcharged the victim should be held to account for dishonesty, because we all know it was impossible to work that many hours based on the facts involved. We are looking at a few e mails. Did no one else spot the crime

Why are the SRA lawyers not held to account for overcharging which is financial fraud

Cat bit your tongue

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