News | Solicitor who backdated letter in ‘sheer panic’ spared strike-off

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Medical evidence in ‘unique and wholly exceptional case’ found to be ‘both compelling and persuasive’

5 September 2017

A solicitor who backdated a letter to cover for her failure to serve a claim form on time was exceptionally spared strike-off on medical grounds.

“The respondent’s misconduct had been extremely grave and had it not been for the strong medical evidence, the outcome would have been quite different and far more serious,” the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled in SRA v Duxbury-Tetley.

Naomi Duxbury-Tetley was acting for the claimant in a personal injury case when she missed the date for service of the claim form. In a subsequent relief from sanction hearing, she produced a backdated letter that was circulated to the parties and to the judge.

In response to the defendant’s request to provide the original Word version of the letter, Duxbury-Tetley said it could not be located on the system. But when her supervisor asked her to sign a statement of truth, she confessed to creating the letter “in a state of sheer panic” and admitted her “complete lack of judgement”.

The seven-year-qualified solicitor said that when she couldn’t find the letter she thought she had sent, she fabricated one. She said she was “in a complete state, not thinking straight”; that she hadn’t been well and should not have been at work.

The SDT heard evidence from Professor Rix, a forensic psychiatrist, confirming that Duxbury-Tetley had acted “in a moment of madness”. Rix said the solicitor’s state of mind was “such that she would have been unable competently to use her understanding and to think calmly and rationally about the nature and consequences of her actions”.

The consultant added that Duxbury-Tetley was “not only suffering from a number of recognisable symptoms, but she was also struggling to function at the material time”. She had “tunnel vision at that time”, functioning at a low level, and could only take one step at a time.

Issuing a mere reprimand, the tribunal said it had been “impressed” by Professor Rix’s evidence and “accepted it in its entirety”.

“The medical evidence that the tribunal heard in this case made it a unique and wholly exceptional case,” the SDT said. The tribunal said it found the evidence “both compelling and persuasive” and Rix himself was “a credible and powerful witness”.

The solicitor’s medical condition meant her culpability level was “negligible”, according to the tribunal, and although she caused harm to the public and to the reputation of the profession, “the public would have sympathy for the respondent in light of her medical condition”.

The fact this had been a single incident of brief duration, and that Duxbury-Tetley had made frank submissions and had shown genuine insight, were mitigating factors.

The tribunal also took account of the solicitor’s current employer’s intention to continue to employ her and of their willingness to supervise and support her.

Duxbury-Tetley has been allowed to continue practising but, for the next three years, only under the supervision of a solicitor of at least ten years’ qualification. In addition, she would have to notify any future employer of the condition on her practising certificate.

The solicitor has been ordered to pay £5,000 in cost, just under half of the £10,286 claimed by the SRA. The tribunal said the reduction reflected the decision by the regulator to abandon an allegation of dishonesty less than a week before the final hearing.

The outcome is in stark contrast with the case of former family solicitor Margaret Wheeler who was struck off for after fabricating several letters which, the SDT found, were intended to cover up her lack of progress and to mislead the parties and the court. Wheeler did not initially admit misconduct and claimed she had been diagnosed with high blood pressure as a result of work stress but provided no medical evidence in support. She was ordered to pay the SRA’s costs, assessed at more than £23,000.

This story was first published on Solicitors Journal on 5 September 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission

 

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