SCB takes flak as clerk takes blame

A solicitors disciplinary tribunal has criticised the Solicitors Complaints Bureau for allowing a clerk to take the public blame for his firm's breach of Law Society rules.

In its recent judgment of the conduct of Peter Elvidge, former clerk at Plymouth-based Howard & Over, the tribunal asked why the firm's partners had not also been called to face charges that the firm had breached Solicitors Investment Business Rules and Solicitors Practice Rules.

The tribunal, chaired by John Clitheroe, said it was the partners who had “ultimate and actual responsibility for compliance” with the rules and was “concerned” they had been rebuked by the SCB and not been referred to the tribunal. “It was well known that a solicitor might not delegate his responsibility to another,” it said.

The tribunal's comments come after the SCB's internal procedures were questioned after the resignation of Michael Howells as treasurer of the Law Society. Howells received a confidential internal SCB rebuke for professional misconduct but made the details public to avoid cover up allegations.

The SCB is to be relaunched in September and its procedures are under review.

A spokeswoman for the SCB said a tribunal was the only way a non-solicitor could be disciplined under the bureau's rules. “The tribunal is not intended as a punishment but as a way of protecting the public,” she said.

“We couldn't have rebuked Elvidge if we had wanted to.”

The tribunal heard that SCB compliance officers found the standard of compliance of the firm's financial services department, managed by Elvidge, was “very poor”. It ruled it would be “undesirable” for Elvidge, employed by Howard & Over as a financial adviser since 1989, to be employed by another solicitor without prior consent from the Law Society.

Elvidge, who has since left the firm, said the partners had not provided sufficient administrative support to ensure the Law Society practice rules were followed. He rejected a number of the SCB's findings.

Paul Mossop, one of four Howard & Over partners rebuked by the SCB, denied Elvidge had not been given sufficient back-up. “We employed Elvidge to manage the financial services department. Although we accept we were ultimately responsible for compliance we cannot be expected to inspect everything an employee does,” he said.