12 Apr 2022

Regulator withdraws case against junior lawyer who left documents on train

Decision prompted by new medical evidence in case that put spotlight on mental health in UK profession

London's Royal Courts of Justice

Appeal was destined for the High Court, before SRA consented to it Shutterstock

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has dropped its case against a junior lawyer who left a briefcase containing sensitive documents on a train in the light of new medical evidence.

The SRA said on Monday it would not be in the public interest to re-hear the case against Claire Matthews following her successful appeal last year against her disqualification for alleged dishonesty over her delayed admission to the loss of the documents.

The move brings to a close a case that put the spotlight on mental health in the UK legal profession after an outpouring of support for Matthews, who represented herself at the original Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) hearing but was subsequently backed by a top legal team acting on a pro bono basis when news of her disqualification became public two years ago.

In its statement, the SRA said it had consented to Matthews’ appeal in the light of ‘new expert medical evidence diagnosing conditions relevant to her mental health’ and had subsequently obtained evidence of its own.

It added that ’in the very particular circumstances of the case, a re-hearing of the allegations against Ms Matthews would not be in the public interest, as long as Ms Matthews agreed to appropriate conditions being placed on her practising certificate, ensuring that she can practise safely’.

Leigh Day associate Emma Walker, who was on the team representing Matthews, said the case demonstrated the importance of getting input from legal and medical experts in regulatory investigations and proceedings.

She added: “It was disappointing that neither the SRA nor the SDT saw it as their role to identify the need for expert evidence, because that would have been appropriate in this case. Since Claire’s case was heard in the SDT, both the SRA and SDT have published guidance on health issues. Though this came too late for Claire, it is to be welcomed by the wider profession.”

Matthews’ case hit the headlines in April 2020 when she was struck off and ordered to pay £10,000 costs. The tribunal found she had delayed reporting the loss of the briefcase for around a week and dishonestly misinformed colleagues about its whereabouts on two occasions. While Matthews accepted she had delayed reporting the loss of the documents, she denied she had deliberately sought to mislead her colleagues at the law firm Capsticks, where she had been working for just four weeks having recently qualified.

The successful conclusion of her case will allow her to donate nearly half of a total of £14,000 she raised through crowdfunding in support of her appeal to the mental wellbeing charity LawCare.

“I hope that the outcome will help other junior solicitors who face similar, difficult situations, in knowing these decisions can sometimes be successfully challenged,” Matthews said. “I thank everyone who has kindly donated and offered their words of support, without it, I could never have envisioned the result.”

Her legal team was led by Gideon Habel, head of Leigh Day’s regulatory team, working alongside counsel Mary O’Rourke QC and Rosalind Scott Bell, from Deans Court Chambers, Mark Harries QC, from Serjeants’ Inn, and Marianne Butler from Fountain Court.