Implied authority and dishonesty – Martin v SRA [2022] EWHC 307

22nd February 2022

The High Court has overturned findings made by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal that a solicitor’s conduct was dishonest and lacking integrity.

Mr Martin was an accredited member of the Law Society’s Mental Health Panel of Solicitors.

The allegations in this case concern an application made to the Law Society by Mr Martin for re-accreditation.

The application form contained declarations to be signed, respectively, by the applicant, Mr Martin in this instance, together with a ‘partner/senior manager’ in his firm, in this instance Mr Gwyndaf Jones (GGJ). One of the allegations made against Mr Martin was that he:

Submitted his application for mental health re-accreditation with a declaration he completed and signed off in the name of GGJ, which certified that its contents were correct and confirmed GGJ had read and understood the declaration, when he knew that GGJ had not seen or reviewed the application.

It was further alleged that this conduct was dishonest and lacking integrity.

Mr Martin admitted that he had completed the declaration in the name of GGJ and that, when doing so, he knew GGJ had not seen or reviewed the form.

The Tribunal found that GGJ had not given a direct instruction or authority to Mr Martin to sign the form on his behalf.

However, on the basis of the evidence before it, it was satisfied that Mr Martin had an implied authority from GGJ to act as he did, noting that GJJ “had used a form of words that led to [Mr Martin] believing he had the authority to complete the form in the way he did.”

This was consistent with evidence from another solicitor employed by the firm in question, Ms Young. She had also made an application for re-accreditation and had similarly entered GGJ’s name in the space for declaration and signature by a partner/senior manager, in circumstances where GGJ had not specifically reviewed the form.

Despite this, the Tribunal found that authority to sign the form could not be delegated and Mr Martin “knew that from the wording and purpose of the declaration.”

It concluded that, applying the principles set down in Ivey v Genting Casinos [2017] UKSC 67, this was dishonest conduct by the standards of ordinary decent people. The Tribunal also considered that the circumstances surrounding Mr Martin’s application were materially different to that of Ms Young.

The Tribunal was also satisfied that Mr Martin had lacked integrity:

…on the basis that he had signed a form knowing it was untrue. Solicitors should not sign documents in the name of someone else. This had been a document to a professional body for accreditation referring to ability to practise in that area, when it had not been seen by the person it said it had. This was completely inconsistent with the duty to be scrupulously accurate referred to in Wingate v SRA [2018] EWCA Civ 366.

Based on its findings, the Tribunal suspended Mr Martin from practice for 12 months.

The appeal

Mr Martin successfully challenged the Tribunal’s findings in relation to both dishonesty and integrity.

In relation to the first stage of the enquiry required by Ivey, the Court noted that the Tribunal had identified Mr Martin’s state of knowledge and belief as being that he:

  • (i) believed himself to have been authorised by GGJ to act as he did; but
  • (ii) knew that the declaration by GGJ was false.

Accordingly, these were the key aspects of his state of mind that fell for consideration at the second stage of Ivey.

However, the Court concluded that the Tribunal gave no real weight to the first of those findings. Rather, it placed its focus on the fact of Mr Martin’s knowledge that the declaration on behalf of GGJ was false. In the Court’s view, this was an error, given that Mr Martin’s belief that he had GGJ’s authority to act as he did was relevant to the second stage, objective test for dishonesty.

This was particularly so as the Tribunal had accepted the evidence showed a pattern in terms of GGJ allowing others to complete the application form and when the content of Mr Martin’s application was accurate.

Further, the Court held that the Tribunal was wrong to conclude that there were material differences between the circumstances in which Ms Young and Mr Martin completed their respective applications. In particular:

In each case GGJ demonstrated his 'pattern' of allowing his signature to be entered without his own personal consideration of the contents of the form; and in doing so trusted the applicant to complete the form accurately.

Accordingly, the Court held that the Tribunal’s finding of dishonesty could not be sustained. It reached the same conclusion in relation to the issue of integrity. The sanction imposed by the Tribunal was set aside and the case was remitted back for determination afresh.

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