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The Briefcase. Season 2.


A junior solicitor who was struck off the roll after lying about losing a briefcase with sensitive documents, will have her case re-heard by a fresh tribunal.

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. She initially fibbed to her supervisor about losing the documents, before confessing a week later. 

In March 2020, Matthews was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. 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. The junior lawyer had told the tribunal that after losing the briefcase she barely ate or slept and attempted to take her own life by drinking bleach.

In response to the JLD at the time, the Chief Executive of the SRA Paul Philip said "neither a person's junior position, not health, will be an answer where the person has been found guilty of culpable dishonesty." He added: "It is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is not about a solicitor leaving a briefcase on a train, but that the evidence of her colleagues was that she lied to them on a number of occasions about the matter.” 

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. She has currently raised over £13,000 in crowd funded donations to help her cover the costs if she loses the appeal, with a target of £40,000.

The SRA has now permitted the appeal and quashed the original decision by the SDT, after Matthews’ legal team "obtained and shared expert medical evidence". The case will be re-heard by a new panel of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. 

"It was clear from the outset of our instruction that Claire’s case raised significant questions about how the SRA, the SDT and the profession itself deal with allegations of misconduct in the context of mental ill-health," said Habel.

The parties have agreed to bear their own costs of the appeal. The SDT's cost order of £10,000 against Matthews has also been quashed.

"‘I am so very overwhelmed by the support and generous donations I have received over the last year," said Matthews. "I could not have envisaged, when I started this appeal, that the decision at the original tribunal could be successfully challenged so as to give me a chance to clear my name on an equal footing with the SRA." She added that the efforts of her pro-bono legal team had been "incredible."

The SRA said: "As set out in the consent order, we agree that in these particular circumstances the new evidence brought forward should be considered by the Tribunal."
 

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Comments

The Gestapo 26 March 21 08:22

The SRA (aka Gestapo) is an utter disgrace.  
The SRA has no credibility at all and the appalling useless Law Society does nothing to protect its members from its tyranny.

We need a fit for purpose regulator.  

Earl Grey 26 March 21 08:34

What no sound bite from the SRA CEO firmly ensconced in his ivory tower. The problem with the harsh approach is that there is no knowing how many cases are covered up by the SRA/not proceeded with because of empathy for the complainee. So your fate lies entirely in their hands- hence they pick off those they perceive to be weak or vulnerable.   It is arguably based on a bad analysis of the Bolton case and thus an unprincipled and lazy way to proceed.  The SRA  recently dealt with a partner in a firm convicted of using a disabled parking badge without him having to appear before the SDT and really the partner should have known better and the behaviour (premeditated) may be viewed by some as much more serious than Claire’s. Claire was just fodder for both the SRA and the SDT and shamefully so.  The SRA and SDT scratching each other’s back are unfit for purpose.

Anon 26 March 21 08:39

SRA have been presented with evidence of “culpable dishonesty” by senior management in my MC firm that is much more serious than a panicked lie by a junior lawyer, and have done nothing. It seems they prefer the easy targets.

Anon 26 March 21 08:44

SRA do like to target trainees, paralegals and juniors. There are so many examples of them destroying those in these parts of the profession but going softly softly when they are up against senior and connected partners in powerful law firms. The standards should be higher for the more senior and experienced but they clearly are not. I wonder why?!

Anonymous 26 March 21 09:53

I look forward to her being cleared of all wrongdoing by the BSB.

Just like you know who.

Anonymous 26 March 21 09:54

Right, so next time I get struck off for doing something dishonest all I need to do is cry a bit, tell the SRA that I drank bleach because they made me unhappy by punishing me for my misdemeanours, and then be back on the Roll by lunchtime? 

Anonymous 26 March 21 10:22

Was once on a train with counsel who got off at an earlier station. He called me in a panic as he had left a file of papers under his seat. I collected them and returned to him by DX. The state of panic in his voice was extremely serious. Fortunately no damage was done to the client which was the most important thing. 

Anonymous 26 March 21 11:30

@11:15 - provide the transcript of the hearing which concluded this or you are a liar.

Anonymouse 26 March 21 12:19

The Emily Scott one was the really outrageous one for me. I don’t think any case has done more to stop whistleblowers in our profession than that one, as well as being manifestly unfair to the young solicitor involved.

Both Emily Scott and Claire Matthews told the truth. The criticism is that they didn’t do it soon enough. That’s a pretty hefty threshold to set by the SRA, and one inconsistent with the accounting breaches by senior staff that are corrected and then result in slaps on wrists.

I hope that when Matthews wins that Emily Scott will be allowed back into practice too.

Anonymous 26 March 21 12:22

@Anonymous 26 March 21 10:22 "Was once on a train with counsel who got off at an earlier station. He called me in a panic as he had left a file of papers under his seat. I collected them and returned to him by DX. The state of panic in his voice was extremely serious. Fortunately no damage was done to the client which was the most important thing."

Which was precisely the right reaction of counsel - immediate adrenaline-fuelled focus on how to fix and/or mitigate the mistake. Which starts with admitting to it to you, his instructing solicitor. As opposed to lying that he did not in fact leave that file on the train when he did.

Most cock-ups can be repaired if one comes clean and apologises. And if there had been damage to the client in your case, counsel potentially would have been sued and/or fined by the ICO. Potentially got some strong guidance in writing from the BSB following a self-report.

It's the lying and cover-up that's the problem, not the initial mistake. We all make mistakes. We don't all lie to our firms, our clients, or the court.

'Old Ben' 26 March 21 18:29

Sadly, the SRA are utterly useless as a regulator.

I experienced them entertain a Russian money launderer complain to them because I 'rudely' declined to 'wash' his ill-gotten gains.  

However, suggest they take any action against unregulated lawyers claiming to be Solicitors - Forget it . . .

Older Lawyer 30 March 21 21:24

My sympathies lie with the SRA on this one. On the basis of this case you just have to assert mental health to be excused repeated lying and dishonesty. I am sure it was immensely stressful losing work documents and I have been in a similar position when I was in her position. I did not sleep and found it overwhelming. But it never occurred to me to lie.

Dishonesty is a red line for solicitors and people need to grow up and realise what is expected of the profession. That is why we don’t tolerate fare evaders on public transport and that is why we should not tolerate this. 

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