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Newly qualified solicitor struck off over lost work briefcase

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Junior lawyer’s fate was sealed when she lied to colleagues about the incident

A newly qualified solicitor who left sensitive client files on the train and lied about it for 24 hours has been banned from the profession.

Claire Louise Matthews was working in the Capsticks clinical law team at the time of the incident. She told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that she “became panic-stricken with the dread of informing Capsticks as to what had happened, particularly as she had only been with the firm a matter of weeks”.

The young solicitor qualified in September 2017 and joined Capsticks at the end of April 2018.

The following month, Matthews was asked to draft a strike-out application that needed to be lodged the next day. She put the necessary files into a borrowed briefcase and left the office, intending to work on the draft from home overnight.

But she feel asleep on the train home from Birmingham to Cheltenham, and forgot to retrieve the briefcase. It was never seen again.

The briefcase contained various confidential documents about a client known as X, including “sensitive personal information relating to X and X’s mother and the psychological impact of the proceedings upon them”.

By unfortunate coincidence, X had already complained about “an alleged failure to handle her data properly”. The briefcase itself had sentimental value to the colleague it was borrowed from: it was a qualification present from her mother.

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When Matthews returned to the office and was asked about its whereabouts, she was overheard telling the colleague that it was at home. She also sent an email to her supervisor saying that “I inadvertently left the suitcase on the train on this [sic] morning when coming into work”.

Matthews came clean the very next morning, admitting that the briefcase had now been missing for a week. She later said that the email had been “sent at a moment of high anxiety” and that she had been “under the influence of alcohol at the time”.

But the SDT described it as “a deliberate attempt to mislead her manager”, on top of the “untrue statement” earlier in the day.

A devastated Matthews told the tribunal that she “had little coherent recollection about the days immediately following the loss of the briefcase and she described the days after 24 May 2018 as the darkest of her life: she barely ate, slept or showered. The respondent said that she also drank alcohol to excess in order block out the event. At her lowest point, the respondent said that she had resorted to drinking bleach in an attempt to end her life.”

The Solicitors Regulation Authority accepted that Matthews had a “background of depression, anxiety and alcohol misuse”. But it said this wasn’t enough to excuse dishonesty in a solicitor.

The disciplinary tribunal agreed, finding that Matthews’ mental health could be given “only limited weight” given that there had been dishonesty in the case.

In assessing costs, the tribunal took into account that Matthews now works at a call centre earning just £9 an hour. She still received a bill of £10,000, on top of being struck off.

In March, a barrister who drunkenly headbutted a colleague was suspended for three months.

Legal Cheek would like to make clear that another solicitor is also called Claire Louise Matthews. She is, of course, entirely unconnected with the Matthews of this story.

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25 Comments

SRA Anonymous

“She still received a bill of £10,000, on top of being struck off.”

Isn’t it great that we have such a good, reputable regulator responsible for our profession everyone?

(196)(5)

Anon

Take a look at the judgement, the SRA was her client. May explain why they drilled her for costs too…

(24)(2)

Soon-to-be-furloughed

How the hell did the SRA rack up £10k of costs on that?

(73)(0)

Anonymous

They actually incurred £55,000 all in but the Tribunal knocked them down for being unreasonable. I find paragraph 81 of the decision the most extraordinary though:

“The Tribunal next took note of the Respondent’s means which it accepted were very
limited. The Respondent had no assets and was working in a temporary job which
paid £9.00 per hour and equated to a weekly wage of under £400. On the basis of the
Respondent’s limited means the Tribunal considered it reasonable and proportionate
to reduce the assessed fees by £8,000.00”

I can’t imagine that she has more than £100 – £200 worth of disposable income a month on that wage. Assuming that they agree to an instalment plan, it’ll take between 4 to 8 years for payment to be received in full, provided no interest accrues. Remarkable.

(89)(0)

Trainee

This is the same SRA that preaches inclusivity and diversity, that allows lecherous senior partners at inner city firms… but when someone clearly has mental health issues, instead of any any empathy or consideration, they are taken to the dogs. Fantastic. I’m so glad we have such an honourable and well regulated profession.

(191)(3)

Anon

The £10,000 costs are outrageous

(94)(2)

SRA u eejits

Anyone else think this is far too harsh of the SRA? She made a stupid mistake, stupidly lied about it for a few days because her superiors would have scalped her and then came clean. SRA needs to take a good look at themselves.

(196)(2)

Anonymous

The SRA needs to take a long, hard look at itself. Yes, it was a stupid mistake, and yes, the delay in coming clean on the loss of the documents was an egregious error, but is the penalty proportionate? The SRA is developing a track-record of coming down very hard on young, inexperienced lawyers at the start of their careers. Some of them are not yet even qualified, yet no mercy is shown, no allowance made for their inexperience. Overworked and under pressure, they make a mistake and, terrified at the potential repercussions, are slow to own up. For this, they must forfeit their careers, and to add insult to injury, they are saddled by the SRA with a huge, non-means-tested bill, while trying to find new jobs, and rebuild their shattered lives. It’s nauseating.

(228)(0)

Jezzamentum afficionado

Off to Jeremy’s gulag with them all!

(7)(6)

R G

This makes me sick. Barristers get away with assaults and all sorts. She made a silly mistake. She took it home to work on it overnight. For Gods sake…… all that training wasted. The SDT is wrong. I hope she appeals.

(145)(4)

Moral guardian

Some deeply dishonest solicitors out there that lie about everything from losing a brief case even to who they are, creating fake identities and all sorts. SRA is setting an example, dishonesty is dishonesty. There should be no room for liars in the legal profession and all those solicitors who have been dishonest better watch out as the SRA is coming for YOU!

(10)(75)

A liar will always lie

“A silly mistake” ???? She deliberately lied and misled her employer!!! I guess you just revealed your (lack of any) moral compass. Let me guess are you a solicitor? I hope you’re in-house at the very least to contain the risk to the public.

(7)(75)

JD Trainee

U high blud ? ?

(17)(0)

Moral guardian

Barristers are a referral profession so are not capable of posing as great a risk to the public as solicitors hence the need for the regulator to deal with solicitors stringently.

(9)(41)

Anonymous

Dishonesty means end of the game. For those moaning about the costs, she could always have said “fair cop, I was dishonest”.

(7)(43)

SR..HEY

Disgusting SRA. Disgusting.

(65)(0)

Jez

I feel uneasy at these disaster p0rn stories on Legal Cheek.

In times gone by, the lady would have been struck off, ready to start her life afresh after a few months.

Now, Alex is trying desperately to monetise clickbait, instead of retraining as a secondary school teacher.

A bad show all round. A sorry tale of human tragedy, best forgotten.

“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”

(19)(10)

Waldo

“Now, Alex is trying desperately to monetise clickbait”

The story appeared on at least three other news sites before LC even noticed it.

(15)(3)

Martin

I suspect those worthies on the panel were being disingenuous. The real decision was ~ “this woman made some very stupid mistakes but although she’s young and has worked hard to gain her qualifications , we think she’s a bit of a flake (the drinking, the thoughts of suicide and the bad decision making under pressure) . . . so instead of being fair and suspending her for 6 months, we’re going to strike her off cos we don’t want her type in the profession “
This was a bad and very unattractive decision on the part of the SRA.

(69)(4)

Anonymous

Yet again, for all the virtue signalling about helping those with mental health issues, but when it comes to the crunch they are just kicked out of the profession instead of being offered support.

(60)(1)

Anomanous

Yet again lying about a stupid minor mistake leads to more dire consequences than merely admitting that you made a mistake. I am 100% sure nothing bad would happen if this person informed the firm about the loss.

In fact, I have a colleague (they have recently become a law firm partner) who had lost their laptop on a train station. This person immediately informed their team and superiors (acknowledging how stupid they were there), the firm sent someone to check with the station management & train company. The laptop was located and returned next day. Obviously nothing bad happened to this person (it was stupid but everyone can make a mistake).

(28)(3)

Hi Students

Sorry you are all having difficulty with the simple concept that as a barrister or solicitor you will be struck off if you lie.

When you grow up and 1% of you actually qualify as solicitors or barristers you really have to get out of the habit of lying constantly.

Legal Cheeks posts are filled with undergraduates posting as if they were qualified lawyers. Its fine to post on legal cheek that you are smashing PE deals / earning £200k at 2 years call / vastly more intelligent than anyone else etc. That’s fine as we all know that you are really just a retarded student posting on legal cheek anonymously.

Get caught lying in the real world and you get struck off.

Nobody cares about your whining that you once read on legal cheek that somebody else didn’t lie and didn’t get struck off, so I shouldn’t be struck off for lying.
Its real simple. If the SRA or BSB catches you lying then they’ll strike you off / disbar you.

So get out of the habits you got into on legal cheek. If you lose important papers on a train then just say: I just lost important papers on a train. Don’t fall into your legal cheek persona and say: “Papers at home, getting on with smashing my mega PE deals. #Kirkland NQ”.

It’s real simple. If you qualify, get out of the habit of lying.

The real world isn’t the legal cheek comments section where lying has no consequences.

(41)(58)

Kirkland NQ

What’s a Capsticks and where can I buy this snack?

(23)(0)

Edison

It’s a terrible waste of a career.

It’s generally better to face the music and have your knuckles rapped, than to try and conceal the mistake and leave your professional integrity in tatters.

Sometimes, you may have a limited window of time to repair your mistake through honest means. For instance, she could have used her initiative to call the rail company or train stations to identify and recover the missing bag. However, this is not guaranteed to work, particularly in cases where documents or laptops disappear. It also does not let you off the hook to come clean before your superiors start asking questions.

When you mess up and need backup, tell your supervising partner ASAP, as well as your professional conduct and risk officer. Notify your data protection officer if required. Don’t talk to the client unless you’re told to. You’re more likely to have a career at the end of it.

(17)(2)

Denis

Perhaps if more undergrads read articles like this fewer would seek a legal career and maybe that would be a good thing.

(9)(0)

Comments are closed.

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