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In the matter of the missing briefcase

The risks attendant on home working were brought into sharp focus recently in a decision of The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (the “SDT”).  A junior lawyer in a UK firm (“X”) was asked to prepare an application at short notice.  To complete the work on time, X took home a briefcase holding some papers containing confidential information.  Unfortunately, X fell asleep on the train and, on waking, alighted from the train without the briefcase.  Neither the briefcase nor the papers were ever recovered. 

 X was very concerned by the loss of the briefcase.  X told the supervising partner and colleagues that X had simply left the briefcase at home.  X made frantic efforts to recover the briefcase but, after a week, had not managed to find it.  At this point, X informed the supervising partner that the briefcase was lost, initially stating that it had been mislaid that morning, before later admitting it had been missing for a week.  Ironically, the client whose papers were lost was the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (the “SRA”), which was itself defending a claim of a data breach.

The SDT Findings

The SDT found that X had failed to act with integrity.  It also found that X had told an untruth in the e-mail claiming the briefcase had been lost the morning it was reported to the supervising partner.  X was also found to be in breach of the firm’s GDPR policies.  X had already been dismissed by the firm in question.  The SDT struck X from the Roll, thereby preventing her from continuing to practice.  X was also ordered to pay very considerable costs.  The decision of the SDT may well be thought to be somewhat heavy-handed.  Even if one agrees with the conclusions the SDT reaches, one cannot help but feel for X, given the devastating consequences which have flowed from a simple mistake that anyone is capable of making.  X is now appealing the decision of the SDT to the High Court.

 Lessons

 Almost everyone is currently working from home.  Whenever the ‘lockdown’ is eased, it is likely that more of us will be spending more time working from home in the future.  Businesses will, no doubt, be well equipped with remote access to electronic systems and will have updated policies regarding the use of such devices and online platforms.  However, handheld equipment, original documents, handwritten papers and notepads can all, only too easily, be mislaid.  Businesses need to be sure to provide clear guidance around home working and how data and documents should be managed and securely disposed of when no longer needed.  For individuals and businesses, it is important, if a mistake is made, to deal with it promptly, properly, and transparently.

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