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Former junior solicitor who left documents on a train appeals strike off decision

A former junior solicitor who was struck off the Roll and barred from the profession by the Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), after mistakenly leaving a briefcase containing case documents on a train, is appealing against the decision.

Posted on 22 April 2020

Claire Matthews has filed her appeal with the High Court. She is represented in her case by law firm Leigh Day and Mary O’Rourke QC and Rosalind Scott Bell of Deans Court Chambers.

Ms Matthews qualified as a solicitor on 15 September 2017 and began working for law firm Capsticks in their Birmingham office on 30 April 2018.

At an SDT hearing January 2020 the tribunal heard that Ms Matthews had been working for Capsticks when she left a locked briefcase that contained client documents on a train by mistake on 24 May 2018. The client in question happened to be regulator of the solicitor profession, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).  The mistake caused Ms Matthews overwhelming distress and anxiety and she initially told her colleague she had left the briefcase at home, before reporting the loss of the documents to her supervising partner at the firm on 31 May 2018. 

The SRA prosecuted Ms Matthews on the basis of dishonesty and breaching principles 2 and 6 of the SRA Principles 2011, which relate to acting with integrity and acting in a way which maintains the public’s trust in the profession. The tribunal found in favour of the SRA in relation to some of the allegations and decided to strike Ms Matthews off.

Ms Matthews is appealing the SDT judgment on the grounds that the tribunal failed to investigate and properly weigh up the impact of the incident on her mental health and therefore it erred in its findings in relation to misconduct and dishonesty.

In her appeal Ms Mathews argues that the decision to strike her off was unduly harsh and excessive due in part to the tribunal failing to take into account a number of factors including her good character, the fact that no harm occurred, that there was no gain to her financially or professionally and that it was a one-off incident. It is argued in her appeal that the tribunal erred in law by holding that the case did not fall under “exceptional circumstances” as set out in previous case law.

As well as striking Ms Matthews from the Roll, the SDT also ordered that she pay £10,000 in costs. This was adjusted from an original figure requested by the SRA and its legal team of £55,000.

Whilst her own newly appointed legal team are all acting pro bono, she is seeking to raise funds in case the appeal is unsuccessful and she is ordered to pay the SRA’s further costs of defending the appeal. Any surplus after meeting those costs and the costs order of the SDT and will be donated to LawCare, the charity promoting good mental health and wellbeing for the legal profession and their families. Ms Matthews is raising money through GoFundMe

Claire Matthews said:

“I feel it is important that this appeal is seen through so as to help highlight mental health in the legal profession and the devastating effect it can have when it impacts on careers.”

Gideon Habel, head of law firm Leigh Day’s regulatory and disciplinary team, said:

“Claire feels very strongly that an injustice has been done and is determined to put that right. The case raises important issues, including about how we in the profession, regulators, tribunals and courts deal with mental ill-health in the legal profession. We look forward to presenting her arguments to the High Court in her appeal.”