Sole practitioners most exposed to risk of stress-induced addiction
9 March 2017
A solicitor struck off for withdrawing money from his firm’s client account to feed a sudden and short-lived gambling addiction brought on by acute stress has said he did so because he felt unable to seek help.
Until last year, Noel Sedgley had had an unblemished 38-year career. Qualifying in 1978, he had been running his own firm in Bournemouth since 1988. But in 2016, following the deaths of a colleague and of a close friend, mounting work pressures, and difficulties in the wake of a negligence claim made against his firm, Sedgley turned to online gambling.
In the space of two months between 15 February and 16 April 2016, the 66-year-old solicitor made 59 transfers totalling more than £1.2m from the firm’s client account to his own personal account. Sedgley had repaid the whole amount by 15 June. But by the time he eventually sought help and received counselling, his practising certificate had been suspended and his firm closed down.
‘With the benefit of counselling, he recognises that, with all the stresses he was under and in terms of his practice, he was really looking for help in a way that the profession is not geared up to provide,’ Sedgley’s solicitor, Susanna Heley, told Solicitors Journal.
The tribunal accepted that Sedgley had been a ‘thoroughly honest, decent, and hard-working solicitor’ who had been ‘caught up in his gambling activities, to a very serious degree’. But finding against him, it said his conduct ‘had been dishonest by the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people’ and he ‘realised that his conduct was dishonest by those same standards’.
Although this had been ‘a sad case’, the tribunal said, there were no mitigating circumstances justifying a departure from the principle that strike-off was the normal sanction in cases of dishonesty. ‘His actions were planned… none of the transfers were accidental’ and ‘there was a real risk that the respondent may have been unable to repay the money he had used’.
One witness, a solicitor who had known Sedgley for 30 years, said he was ‘totally honest’ and was ‘much liked and respected in the area’. She suggested he may well have suffered a mental breakdown and that his obsession with gambling was out of character. This, she felt, may have been ‘precipitated by events in the respondent’s office, in particular arising from a negligence claim relating to a matter handled by a colleague’ along with subsequent claims and instances which had to be reported to insurers.
His wife described him at the time as occasionally ‘moody and very depressed’ and sometimes ‘high’ and ‘verbally aggressive’. She said her husband ‘was not the sort of man to go to a doctor unless he was almost at death’s door, so he had not sought help about the gambling problem’.
‘There are more occurrences of solicitors getting in trouble at the end of a long and otherwise unblemished career. Suddenly they lose the ability to cope,’ said Heley. ‘The effect of this is magnified with sole practitioners, because – unlike in other firms – there may be nobody to take the slack. The whole situation – spikes in workload, non-work issues, maybe trying to retire – cranks up the stress. With so many things happening all at once, some solicitors are no longer able to cope. It can happen to all sorts of people.’
Sedgley’s own meticulousness in keeping records of the money he had taken out may have been his downfall. The standards for establishing dishonesty, as set out in the Twinsectra case, require proving that an individual’s conduct was objectively dishonest by reference to the standards of reasonable and honest persons, and, subjectively, that they were aware that their conduct would be considered dishonest by those same standards.
When asked whether he had ‘borrowed’ money from client account, Sedgley replied he could not say that he saw what he was doing in those terms at the time. He said he had ‘no intention permanently to appropriate client funds’ and had been ‘in a kamikaze state of mind’.
Sedgley conceded fellow solicitors would regard his conduct as ‘horrendous’ but he denied he had been subjectively dishonest, saying he didn’t believe he had an understanding that what he was doing would be regarded as dishonesty.
However, the tribunal said, ‘in taking steps to repay the money and keeping records of how much was owed when he knew the money belonged to his clients, and that he was not entitled to use that money, the respondent’s conduct was dishonest by those same standards’.
‘There have been cases in the past where the test was wrongly applied, for example, where the subjective element was deemed to be met if the objective element was proven, but the SDT are now, rightly, well versed in the proper approach and looking at the two elements separately,’ Heley commented. ‘In my experience addiction problems can be connected with mental health problems. Solicitors who are affected may become unable to appreciate that what they’ve done is wrong, even though it may be obvious to outsiders.’
Solicitor Angus Lyon, a consultant at Mears, Hobbs & Durrant and author of A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress, said the nature of addictions is that they are secretive and only come to light when there is, for instance, a relationship breakdown or other major event that makes friends and family aware.
‘My experience is that individuals will have some psychological problem – stress, anxiety, or depression – and the addiction activity or substance abuse tends to come as a way of covering up the distress.’ Sedgley’s case fitted the pattern of emotional behaviour, he said. ‘It’s cumulative stresses and strains, until something happens that breaks the camel’s back.’
A common response for lawyers is ‘hitting the bottle late at night’, Lyon said, starting with just a few glasses before escalating. ‘There’s often self-deception involved, and an element of dissociation between doing something and experiencing the hit, as well as denial.’ In cases such as Sedgley’s, falling into addiction is all the easier when there is nobody monitoring what you’re doing.
Unlike alcohol or drug misuse, gambling addiction is not a recognised public health problem, despite a recommendation to this effect in a 2014 report by the Royal College of Therapists. Making it a recognised condition could make it easier for the tribunal to determine – with supporting expert evidence – whether somebody’s judgment was impaired to such an extent that they were unable to form the requisite knowledge for the subjective part of the Twinsectra test.
‘But from practical experience, the work involved with people suffering from addiction is very similar irrespective of the nature of the addiction,’ Lyon said. ‘You need to develop a kind of accountability for that person, rewire them so they move to voluntary abstinence.’
Picking up the phone to a helpline, however, requires a level of awareness and motivation that addicts, by virtue of their condition, struggle to reach until being persuaded by a family member or friend.
LawCare, the mental health and wellbeing charity for the legal sector, doesn’t receive many calls to its helpline about gambling, but chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer said there were steps those affected could take to help themselves. ‘As with the other issues we discuss with our callers, the first, and most important, step is to admit that there’s a problem. Talking about the problem can really help, and can start the process of dealing with the issue. We recommend people call us in the first instance, or a specialist organisation such as Gambling Anonymous.’
Rimmer also suggested other ways of starting to address the problem. ‘People can also help themselves by avoiding locations and situations where the temptation to gamble may become too much. They can take control of their money with a budget, so they don’t spend it on gambling, although they may need help with this as it is a difficult change to make. Our best advice would be to take one day at a time, and don’t set impossible targets by expecting everything to improve immediately.’
For those falling into addiction and their families, the challenge is to see the early signs and address the issue before it gets out of control. ‘Understanding the impact our state of mind has on the way we experience our circumstances is crucial in determining how effectively we withstand challenges and protect our mental wellbeing,’ said Chetna Bhatt, co-founder with Lauren Giblin of Being Lawyers, an organisation delivering state of mind training to lawyers.
‘It helps to prevent us from getting caught up in a downward spiral of thinking, which can easily lead to poor mental health and uncharacteristic behaviour, such as that described in the case of Mr Sedgley. When we are in a low quality state of mind, we lose the ability to see things clearly, which could explain why Mr Sedgley did not perceive his behaviour as dishonest at the time.’
This story was first published on Solicitors Journal on 9 March 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission