SSDT report highlights main areas of solicitor misconduct

Discipline tribunals involving solicitors are becoming increasingly complex according to the latest annual report from the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT).

The tribunal, which has 12 solicitor and 12 non-solicitor members, heard and made decisions on 40 cases and there were 24 findings of professional misconduct in 2014.

A total of five solicitors were struck off and can no longer practise.

One solicitor was suspended and a further five were restricted in their practise. 15 were censured and/or fined and two orders were made for solicitors to pay compensation.

The main grounds for solicitors’ misconduct (misconduct can be established on more than one ground) included failure to comply with professional obligations (15), failure to complete conveyancing procedures in a proper manner (10), failure to reply to the Law Society and / or the solicitor’s client (8) and failure to comply with accounts rules (5).

Of the cases brought to the SSDT by the Law Society of Scotland, there was one not guilty decision, while a further two were found not guilty and remitted to the Law Society for consideration as to whether there had been unsatisfactory professional conduct.

Two complaints were withdrawn or dismissed.

Chairman of the SSDT, Alistair Cockburn, said: “The SSDT plays a very important role in the regulation of solicitors, and ensures that misconduct cases against solicitors can be heard by an independent panel made up of both solicitors and non-solicitors.

“There were fewer hearings in 2014 compared to the previous year, however some were held over a number of days, reflecting the complex nature of cases brought before the tribunal panel.”

The 2014 report outlines trends that have arisen over the year regarding the areas of practice most likely to give rise to complaint.

Mr Cockburn said: “In the vast majority of cases people have no complaint about their solicitor, however it’s vital that solicitors who have failed to meet the standards required of them can be sanctioned.

“Issues with conveyancing transactions were prominent, with 10 solicitors failing to comply with the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) Handbook. It is important that solicitors ensure that they are up to date with requirements set by the Law Society of Scotland and the CML to ensure they meet the needs of their clients, including the lender client.

“Other failures include not meeting professional obligations and not complying properly with the Society’s money laundering rules.

“There were eight cases where solicitors simply failed to respond to their clients, the Law Society or other organisations. If a solicitor is facing a complaint, they need to ensure that they deal with all correspondence appropriately as taking a head in the sand approach just leads to further difficulties for everyone concerned.

“We hope that by providing more information in this year’s annual report about cases that are brought before the tribunal, solicitors can take steps to ensure that they meet the requirements expected of them by both their clients and their professional body.”

The SSDT also produced new guidance for non-solicitor complainers on making an appeal.

Mr Cockburn added: “There has been an increasing number of appeals from lay complainers and we have found that they can have difficulty in framing the appeal in a structured way that sets out their argument against a particular finding. We hope that the guidance will help them in the appeal process.”

In response to the annual report, Carole Ford, non-solicitor convener of the Law Society of Scotland regulatory committee, said: “The society investigates conduct complaints against solicitors and will prosecute solicitors before the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) on serious misconduct matters.

“People rely on solicitors to do a good job for them and in the vast majority of cases, solicitors’ clients are happy with the advice and the level of service they receive - recent research by Ipsos MORI showed that 90 per cent of solicitors’ clients were satisfied.

“However when things do go wrong, it is important that clients can be confident in raising concerns and that their complaint will be dealt with appropriately.

“This year’s SSDT report has highlighted the key areas where findings of misconduct were made. It would make very useful reading for every Scottish solicitor to help them understand the nature of some of the most common issues giving rise to misconduct complaints, as well as the importance of meeting their professional obligations and responding to both client and Law Society concerns.

“We have worked to improve our own conduct complaints handling processes and have reduced the average time taken to investigate complaints by almost a quarter, although individual cases can vary enormously depending on the complexity of the situation.

“Dealing with complaints is and will always be difficult for everyone involved. What we want to ensure is that the process in place is robust and fair to both complainer and solicitor, and that the right outcome is reached.”

The SSDT is an independent body and has the powers to use a range of sanctions from censuring or fining a solicitor, to restricting their ability to practise and in the most serious cases, strike them from the roll of solicitors.

The annual report can be read on the SSDT website: Annual Report 2014.

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