Defendant PI Solicitor’s Inaccurate Attendance Note Amounted to ‘Misconduct’: Solicitors Regulation Authority v Matthew Timothy Sparrow

On 18 June 2019, judgment of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) was filed with the Law Society, in relation to a matter heard on 23 May 2019.[i]

Defendant personal injury solicitor, Matthew Timothy Sparrow, of Clyde & Co LLP’s Manchester Office, was alleged to have made an ‘untrue statement’ to Birkenhead County Court that a claimant solicitor had agreed an ‘extension of time to file (and serve) the Defence to the claim on behalf of his client, which he knew or should have known would tend to mislead the Court’.

Mr. Sparrow, admitted to the roll in 2003, was acting in a low-value traffic accident case, which had been brought by a client of Slater and Gordon (S&G).

A 7-day extension of time for filing the defence was agreed on 17 November 2016. Requiring additional time to comply with the deadline, the defendant sought a further 7-day extension late on the day that the 1st extension elapsed (24 November 2016).

However, Mr. Sparrow was unable to reach the file handler and his only security of obtaining a further short extension was a telephone conversation with the file handler’s assistant, who, according to his attendance note, dated 28 November 2016, had said that meeting his demands would ‘not be a problem’:

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On the following day, the Clyde & Co associate filed and served his defence.

In the interim, the matter was transferred to the court and on 7 December 2016, S&G obtained judgment in default, which was received by Clyde & Co 2-days later.

Subsequently, on 15 December 2016, Mr. Sparrow amended his attendance note to read that the extension could be ‘agreed’, which had the effect of making the file handler’s assistant’s assurance more definitive:

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On the same day, he informed the court that there had been an agreed extension.

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This correspondence was re-sent under cover of an email, dated 19 January 2019.

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Mr. Sparrow was employed on a 6-month contract, but only served 2-months before submitting his letter of resignation.

As such, when the case was transferred to a new Clyde & Co handler and, on 16 February 2017, an application to set aside default judgment was made, Mr. Sparrow’s attendance note was relied upon, unknowing of the fact that it had been amended.

The application hearing never took place, though, as pre-hearing, S&G exhibited a witness statement, which included a transcript of Mr. Sparrow’s telephone call, on 24 November 2016, and clearly conveyed that an extension had not in fact been agreed. The original attendance note was a reflection of an ‘inaccurate recollection’ of the telephone call. This was then ‘aggravated’ by his consequent amendment.

Having adjourned the hearing, settlement was agreed in the 1-month interim period.

At the tribunal hearing, the court heard submissions that Mr. Sparrow had been under ‘significant pressure’ in his first defendant role. He was ‘immediately’ given a large number of cases to manage, which only increased, regardless of requests to reduce his workload. Counsel argued that the ‘process driven’ nature of the work meant that ‘there was very little to distinguish one case from another’. There was ‘no malevolent intent’, he was ‘in all probability confusing the case with another matter’.

When he received a copy of the transcript, Mr. Sparrow accepted his ‘simple but serious mistake’, which constituted ‘professional misconduct’.

On assessment of the ‘seriousness of the proven misconduct’ and deciding on a sanction that was ‘fair and proportionate in all the circumstances’, the Tribunal recognised that Mr. Sparrow’s actions were ‘unplanned’ and that he had been ‘frank and open from the outset’, displaying ‘genuine insight into his conduct’. The impact of his conduct on the case, despite setting off a ‘chain of events’, was ‘minimal’.

Nevertheless, the impact of his conduct on the reputation of the profession, albeit in an otherwise ‘unblemished career’, was ‘harmful’ and Principle 6 of the SRA Principles 2011 had been breached.

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The Tribunal therefore concluded, on the basis that the misconduct was ‘moderately serious’, that:

‘... the Respondent had failed to comply with his duties to the Court, and had failed to behave in a way that maintained the trust the public placed in him and in the profession. Whilst it was accepted that the Respondent had made a mistake, which was compounded by the amendment of the telephone attendance note, the Tribunal considered that this was not a mistake that any solicitor should make. The Respondent's experience in defendant personal injury litigation may have been limited, however, he was an extremely experienced claimant personal injury litigator. As such he was fully aware of the importance of compliance with deadlines, including the requirement for a Defendant to submit the Defence on time, or obtain an extension. As a result of his mistake, the Court had been misled. The Tribunal considered that a financial penalty was the appropriate penalty in the circumstances’.

Following publication of the SDT decision, a Clyde and Co spokesperson stated:

'Matthew Sparrow was a solicitor employed on a short term contract in Manchester in 2016. He had left the firm before we identified an isolated issue and reported it to the SRA. As a firm we hold ourselves to the highest professional and ethical standards and expect all of our people to uphold our code of conduct and client service standards’.[ii]

Accordingly, the Tribunal ordered Mr. Sparrow to pay a fine of £5,000 and costs in the sum of £7,000.

Full text judgment can be accessed here.

 

[i] Nick Hilborne, ‘“Under pressure” lawyer misled court after amending attendance note’ (3 July 2019 Legal Futures) <https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/under-pressure-lawyer-misled-court-after-amending-attendance-note> accessed 3 July 2019.

[ii] John Hyde, ‘Defendant solicitor blames 'workload pressure' for file mistake’ (3 July 2019 Law Gazette) <https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/defendant-solicitor-blames-workload-pressure-for-file-mistake/5070834.article> accessed 3 July 2019.