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Junior solicitor whose hair fell out as she struggled to meet billing targets struck off after successful SRA appeal

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Sovani James handed two-year ban earlier this year for faking documents

A junior solicitor who earlier this year was suspended from practice for forging legal documents in an attempt to show that a case was progressing has now been struck off after the regulator successfully appealed the decision.

In today’s ruling in Solicitors Regulation Authority v James & Ors, the High Court said the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) acted incorrectly when it opted against striking Sovani James off the roll.

Earlier this year, Legal Cheek reported that James had been given a two-year ban, suspended for three years and ordered to pay £9,511 costs. At the time of the misconduct, James was working at McMillan Williams, a firm with 27 UK offices in locations including London Bridge and Westminster.

The High Court judgment states: “It may be that pressure of work or an aggressive, uncaring workplace could excuse carelessness by a solicitor or a lapse of concentration or making a mistake, but dishonesty of any kind is a completely different and more serious matter, involving conscious and deliberate wrongdoing.”

During her original disciplinary hearing, James claimed the firm adopted a “sudden focus on financial return on employees” an “aggressive implementation” of billing targets. In her evidence she said:

“[A]lmost daily I would be in tears due to the pressures I was under… The stress I was under was obvious towards the end of my time with the firm. I was clearly distressed and cried regularly. My hair started to fall out and I put on weight.”

Today’s ruling also addressed to further recent SDT decisions: Peter Naylor, an award-winning corporate lawyer who sent a number of misleading emails to a client, and London-based solicitor Esteddar Macgregor, who acted dishonestly when handling legal aid invoices.

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As reported by Legal Cheek at the time, ex-TLT lawyer Naylor told the tribunal his heavy workload had left him “physically and emotionally drained” and that he had sent the misleading emails in an attempt “to buy [himself] some time”. He was handed a two-year suspended ban. Meanwhile, Macgregor was given a two-year ban, suspended for three years.

As a result of today’s ruling, all three solicitors will now be struck off.

A spokesperson for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said: “We welcome the clarity that the High Court judgment brings.”

Responding to the judgment, wellbeing charity LawCare said it is cases like this that demonstrate why everyone in the legal community needs to take the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers seriously. It continued:

“These cases have been devastating for the solicitors involved, their firms and their clients, and may have been avoided had these lawyers been better supported in the workplace and felt able to talk about their problems.”

Read the High Court judgment in full below:

35 Comments

Anonymous

Law really is now a bullshit career. I’ve just handed notice to go and work somewhere much nicer, for double the money and more importantly no billables. Use your transferrable skills and get out while you can!

Anonymous

Where

Anonymous

Where? Don’t say recruitment…

Anonymous

IB

Anonymous

Haha, IB is even worse. Equivalent pay with much worse hours and a more ruthless culture.

Anonymous

What is IB?

Anonymous

Irritable Bowel. Nasty stuff

Ms “C P”

Tell me about it!

It’s why I have to wear adult nappies.

Anonymous

Where did this come from? Was there a story that she wet the bed or something?

Ex summer analyst

Banking, much nicer?? Hahahahahahahahaha get out of here fresher

IB attracts a level of psychopath that you only otherwise find at broadmoor

You can and will get sacked any day of the week

Good luck (although you don’t need it since you’re chatting sh*t)

Anonymous

OP here.

(i) Not recruitment, I’m not mental.

(ii) Not IB, I’m not a psychopath and mental.

Civil Service role. Thank you for your concern though 🙂

Anonymous

Civil Service role that pays “double the money”? What were you, some dead-end shyte PI solicitor paid in digestive biscuits?

No Civil Service role can pay even close to what MC/SC and especially US shops offer.

Anonymous

How is your TC hunt going? 😉

Anonymous

Nice try dickwad, except that I’m 1PQE at a US firm 😂🍆💦

Anonymous

Lol whatever mate. Get back to knocking one out in your student flat.

Anonymous

Quit projecting you beta homo. The jokes on you to be working in the civil service rofl lol 😂😂😂🍆💦

ex summer analyst

fair enough tbh

are you a regional lawyer? or to put it another way, how have you managed to get double wedge in the civil service?

Anonymous

Unless your role is Permanent Secretary or Head of the Cabinet Office, there’s no way you’ve doubled a US 1PQE salary….

Anonymous

Hear hear, if the civil service job pays twice as much as your legal one, you must’ve been pumping out conveyancing forms in some shithole high street shop in Chelmsford mate. What utter crap.

Anonymous

“Civil service” hahahahah.

Anonymous

So sad

Anonymous

Cheer up, might never happen

Anonymous

Leave law now. Don’t feed the beast.

Such d*ckheads.

City titan

“McMillan Williams, a firm with 27 UK offices in locations including London Bridge and Westminster.”

Must be a top firm indeed.

Just Anonymous

I do not find this judgment persuasive.

The Divisional Court concluded that the SDT had wrongly applied the test of whether there were “exceptional circumstances.” The court acknowledged that this is “a fact specific exercise” ([46]). However, the Court also held that, following previous authority, the principal focus must be on “the nature and extent of the dishonesty and the degree of culpability ([48]).

The Court further found, as a general principle. that:

“…it is difficult to see how in a case of dishonesty, as opposed to some lesser professional misconduct, the fact that the respondent suffered from stress and depression (whether alone or in combination with extreme pressure from the working environment) could without more amount to exceptional circumstances…” ([103]). (See also [110] and [113], which make similar points).

The Court then held that the SDT had failed to conduct the correct balancing exercise, since “it did not focus on those critical questions of the nature and extent of the dishonesty and degree of culpability and engage in the balancing exercise which the evaluation requires between those critical questions on the one hand and matters such as personal mitigation, health issues and working conditions on the other.” ([104]).

The Court further concluded that, applying the test properly, the only proper conclusion the SDT could have reached was to strike Ms James off. The key factor in its decision was the fact that her dishonesty had persisted over a 17 month period. Speaking generally of all the cases before it, the Court said:

“I do not consider that, in cases of repeated dishonesty and misconduct of this kind, the lesser sanction of suspension (let alone suspended suspension) addresses the risk of harm to the public or the need to maintain the reputation of the profession which, as all the case law since Bolton demonstrates, is the principal purpose of the sanction.” ([105]).

Talking specifically about Ms James’ case, the Court again justified its stance as follows:

“This was not isolated dishonesty or a moment of madness but repeated dishonesty over a sustained period of time. It caused harm to the client.” ([114]).

My difficulty with this analysis is that it asserts various rules which, in my opinion, are unwarranted, namely:
(1) A rule that mental illness and stress cannot, without more, amount to exceptional circumstances
(2) A rule that extreme working conditions cannot, without more, amount to exceptional circumstances; and
(3) A rule that prolonged (as opposed to isolated) dishonesty (of the kind established) can never merit only a suspension

The Court justified the first two rules by reference to SRA v Wingate [2018] EWCA Civ 366 at [164]. But that case was plainly a decision reached on its own facts, and I do not detect in that paragraph any suggestion that the Court of Appeal was setting out any wider principle.

In this case, the Court accepted that “mental health and workplace environment issues … can and should be considered as part of the balancing exercise required in the assessment or evaluation” ([104]). I struggle to reconcile that acknowledgment with the court’s subsequent analysis, which was in effect to say that, without more, these matters were effectively irrelevant.

I say that, as the Court correctly said, the “exceptional circumstances” test is highly fact specific. I thus conclude that each individual case should be judged on its own individual facts without further sub-rules or presumptions. Here, Ms James was not only under appalling stress resulting in a depressive disorder, but that stress was caused by a working environment acknowledged to be toxic and which, under any view, was utterly abominable. On such facts, I think the SDT was entitled to conclude that Ms James’ culpability for her dishonesty was sufficiently reduced so as to render her circumstances truly exceptional. I thus think the Court should not have interfered, and I very much hope that the Court of Appeal reverses this judgment on appeal.

One final point. As previously noted, the Court said that only strike-off was sufficient to address “the risk of harm to the public or the need to maintain the reputation of the profession” ([105]). In my opinion, the only real risk to the public here comes from those employers who treat their staff in the shameful way Ms James was treated. It is absolutely clear that, when placed in a reasonable working environment, she poses no risk to the public at all ([15]). I think the public would be far more concerned by the fact that these people are still practising unsanctioned than they would be by Ms James’ continuing practice.

Anonymous

Anonymous

It’s about time the SRA addressed the route cause of this type of incident. Her employers are to blame. Bullying and harassment in the legal profession is rife.
She’s been victimised by the system she worked so hard to serve. It sucks. The judge in his ignorance has applied the trolley theory. The real culprits now are free to exploit their employees and their clients.
So much for public interest. …I’d say more like protecting your own interests.
What happened to justice??

Anonymous

I know a woman who left one of the firm’s involved in the judgment. The partner of her team forced her to take on an American case where the team had no experience because the client was willing to pay on account. He made himself scarce while the client was crying on the office during a Saturday while someone else cleared up his mess. I believe the culture complained about.

Anonymous

What happens to the supervisors?

Anon9

I would gladly contribute to a crowdfunding for Ms James’ appeal. This is bonkers.

They were the nicest of the nice

At least the TLT lawyer had the nicest partners as they loaded on the work which led to a finding of dishonesty and caused him to be struck off.
Any more bullshit surveys coming any time soon?

Paul Tudor

Very harsh although I see the comments section is rife with the usual squabbling infants one expects on a LC article. I doubt any of you halfwits have even hit puberty yet, never mind completing an LLB and advancing to a proper career. Cringeworthy.

Squabbling infant

Fuck off Paul.

Al Dabran

Yeah fuck off Paul

Alan Brunwin, children author

Just to let the UK know and the rest of the world. 3 fake , bogus lawyers that are employed by local councils to act in family courts. One lawyer is falsely rejisterd with Sra. The other two are rejisterd no where but employed as family court solicitors for 2 London councils. Anyone of authority wants their details and do something about it please email me, I have their details and what councils they illegally present themselves as.

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