Charitable legacy challenges – preventing successful claims when wills include charitable bequests
In separate SDT judgments published this month, two junior solicitors were struck off for acting dishonestly. In the first case, AD backdated letters and provided untrue information to the mother of a vulnerable client. In the second case, TB included false information in an application for a training contract and in a CV she provided to a recruitment agency. These cases demonstrate that, while inexperience and stress may be mitigating factors, in cases involving clear dishonesty they are unlikely to lead to a lesser sanction than a strike-off.
Over a nine-month period in 2015-2016, AD created 23 back-dated letters in relation to nine separate clients to hide her lack of progress on those matters. AD had been working for her then employer, JCP Solicitors in Swansea, for less than nine months and was only three years qualified when she began to create the backdated letters on clinical negligence and personal injury files.
During this time AD also made untrue statements to the mother of a client. She was instructed by client KC in relation to a claim for damages following the death of KC’s husband. KC suffered various health difficulties and so was assisted by her parents in relation to her claim. In April 2016, AD was instructed to put forward a counter-offer to settle the claim. When KC’s mother chased her about this a month later, AD claimed that she had put forward the counter-offer and had chased but had not yet heard from the insurers about this. This statement was untrue: AD had not put forward the counter-offer she had been instructed to do.
Following the referral to the SRA, AD admitted the allegations made against her and accepted that she had behaved dishonestly. She explained that she had been working long hours at the relevant time and that her actions “..were taken in an effort to give myself some breathing space…I amended letters to show my supervisors that I was in control of my files…it was simply a case that I was no longer able to cope.”
In her mitigation, which was not agreed by the SRA, AD explained that at the time she had taken over conduct of a significant number of cases all of which were outside of her specialism and for which she received no additional training or support. She explained that her workload was too much for her to handle, she was struggling to sleep and was suffering from anxiety. However, AD did not assert that there were exceptional circumstances and agreed with the SRA that she should be struck off for her actions. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal approved this Agreed Outcome.
In 2011 TB submitted an online application form for a training contract and summer placement at Weightmans. In this application TB set out individual subjects she claimed to have studied as part of her Law Degree, along with the results for each subject. Some of these subjects were never studied by TB and in all but one of the subjects she did study, she claimed to have been awarded grades which were higher than the actual grades awarded. For example, she claimed to have achieved a mark of 70 for Contract Law, when she actually attained a grade of 37. She also inflated the grades she received from her LPC.
TB’s application was successful and she completed her training contract with Weightmans in September 2015. TB then left Weightmans and joined DLA Piper as an Associate, having submitted to DLA Piper a CV via a recruitment agency. This CV contained inaccurate information about TB’s GCSE results, the electives she studied in her law degree, that she had passed her LPC with a commendation (she passed with an average mark) and that she had received distinctions in several of her LPC subjects (she did not receive any distinctions). The CV also contained false information about the work TB had undertaken whilst at Weightmans. For example, she claimed to have “organised the AGM of the international legal network Legalink event, held in Rio de Janeiro, to great success”, when in fact this event took place before TB started working for Weightmans and she had not organised any Legalink AGM. Parts of the CV had been copied and pasted from CVs of two other solicitors, including entire sections about work in which she had never been involved.
It was only after TB had left Weightmans that her dishonest actions came to light. Weightmans found on its IT system copies of TB’s CV, the CV of another solicitor which she had copied and pasted and emails TB sent about her CV in which she referred to “the hilarity of embellishment”.
TB’s former employers accepted that some embellishment of a CV was to be expected, but took the view that the extent of the embellishment in TB’s CV went too far, and therefore reported the matter to the SRA.
When the SRA asked TB for an explanation, she accepted that the information in her training contract application was incorrect, but claimed that this was a mistake based on the fact that she completed the application in a hurry without access to her academic records, and so completed it from memory. She also accepted that her CV was inaccurate but claimed that this was because she failed to amend areas which she had pasted and that she had “fired it off without giving it a second look”.
TB was a paralegal at the time of her application to Weightmans and a trainee solicitor when she submitted her CV to the recruitment agency. Her representative submitted that this was relevant to the standards of integrity expected of her at the time. He submitted that it was difficult to see how public confidence in the profession could be undermined by pre-admission conduct and that the longer the period of time between the alleged conduct and the admission to the Roll, the less connection there would be between a person’s conduct and the professional standards to which they were required to adhere. It would not be fair to judge a person who was not at the time a solicitor, by the higher standards of integrity expected of solicitors.
The SDT rejected these submissions and referred to the fact that, at the time of her application, TB had been working as a paralegal for around three years and would have been well aware of the standards expected of prospective solicitors.
The SDT did not accept that TB had made mistakes, but found that she had deliberately inflated her qualifications to give her an advantage over other candidates. They determined that: “The Respondent knew what she had done, and had done it twice…She had fabricated information on her online application to Weightmans and, having got away with it, she then did it in an even more brazen manner in 2015”. Her behaviour was found to have impacted on those who employed her, as they believed her credentials to be correct, and on other candidates who were not successful because TB’s credentials and experience were purportedly better than theirs.
These cases are a sobering reminder of the importance of being honest and straightforward. The consequences of telling a lie are invariably more serious than that which the lie sought to avoid or achieve. Had AD admitted that she was struggling with her workload and even refused to take on more work, this may not have been viewed favourably by her employer and, at worst, may have resulted in capability proceedings. Had TB taken the time to provide the correct information in her application and CV, she may not have been successful in her applications, but would have been able to seek a TC and qualified role elsewhere. As Tolstoy said, “anything is better than lies and deceit”.
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