A question of honesty: solicitor struck off for fare evasion
A solicitor appeared at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for a matter of misconduct committed in their private life.
Acting with honesty and integrity are two core principles for solicitors set out in the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Standards and Regulations.
Law Society Council member Paul Bennett considers a real case in which a solicitor appeared at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for a matter of misconduct committed in their private life.
The SRA alleged that by deliberately failing to pay rail fares worth approximately £650 for journeys undertaken over a three-month period in 2017, the solicitor breached either or both of Principles 2 and 6 of the SRA Principles 2011.
The respondent, a newly qualified solicitor, admitted fare evasion in her journeys to the office and once the outstanding fares were calculated by the rail company, she self-reported the matter to the SRA after a settlement had been made.
The solicitor was dismissed by her firm and expressed deep remorse for her actions, stating that she would usually do the right thing in both her personal and professional life.
Following a review of the evidence, the SRA calculated that the solicitor failed to pay for 82% of her journeys to and from work.
The solicitor did not dispute the calculation and admitted that, despite some financial hardship, she could afford to pay the fares, but chose not to do so.
The SDT finding
The tribunal found that the solicitor breached the following SRA Principles by deliberately failing to pay the fares:
- Principle 2: “You must ... act with integrity”
- Principle 6: “You must ... behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services”
The tribunal found that the solicitor had acted dishonestly and continued to commit misconduct over a period of time, ceasing only when caught by the inspector.
She knew – or ought reasonably to have known – that her actions were in breach of the obligations to protect the public and the reputation of the legal profession.
The tribunal found that despite mitigating factors, including no previous disciplinary matters, her relative inexperience as a solicitor and self-reporting to the regulator, the fact remained that the misconduct only ceased when she was caught.
As a result, the solicitor was struck off and ordered to pay costs of just over £3,000.
The case demonstrates the serious consequences of a breach of SRA Principles and highlights the overarching high-level standards of ethical behaviour expected by solicitors, even in their private life.
The SDT guidance note on sanctions (10th edition), states:
“Some of the most serious misconduct involves dishonesty, whether or not leading to criminal proceedings and criminal penalties. A finding that an allegation of dishonesty has been proved will almost invariably lead to striking off, save in exceptional circumstances (see Solicitors Regulation Authority v Sharma  EWHC 2022 (Admin)).”
The SDT has unlimited powers to fine, suspend or strike off a solicitor where they are found to have behaved unethically.
Of the substantiated cases brought in the SDT in 2020, 50% were for breaches of the SRA Principles (comprising the fundamental tenets of ethical behaviour that are expected of all authorised solicitors, firms and employees).