By Hannah Ewan
A LAWYER who turned up to a children’s hearing while intoxicated by drink and swine flu medicine has been found guilty of professional misconduct.
The solicitor was “staggering and incoherent” at the sheriff court proceedings and smelt of alcohol, a tribunal heard.
The woman was forced to withdraw from the case, leaving her clients to represent themselves, according to the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) .
But the lawyer has been allowed to carry on practising law and her identity has been kept secret by the SSDT on the grounds that revealing her name could identify children involved in the case.
Freedom of information campaigners have criticised the secrecy move and condemned the reasoning behind it as “spurious”.
The case was lodged by the Council of the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration.
Their lawyer, Valerie Johnston, told the hearing in Edinburgh that Ms A was “staggering and unsteady on her feet” before the sheriff in September 2009.
The tribunal heard that Ms A, who denied professional misconduct, was presenting an appeal against a children’s hearing decision at a sheriff court, the identity of which is also being kept secret.
“All the parties who were present thought that she was intoxicated as she was seen to be staggering and incoherent and smelt of alcohol,” said Miss Johnston.
She also said the Bar Officer had reported misgivings about Ms A’s state before she addressed the sheriff.
When the sheriff told Ms A he thought she was unfit to continue, she said she had swine flu.
When questioned again she agreed to withdraw, leaving her clients to represent themselves, added Miss Johnston.
She said it was accepted by the Law Society that Ms A was prescribed Tamiflu and that she was ill at the time. However, she said Ms A took wine in a situation where she was to conduct an appeal and failed to recognise the effect that this had on her and the potential implications of that for her clients.”
Ms A admitted in a letter to the Law Society that she “had consumed some wine at lunchtime on the day in question due to stresses in her life”.
The tribunal heard from Ms A’s solicitor – referred to only as Mr B – that she was an alcoholic at the time of the children’s hearing.
He told the hearing his client “had consumed a glass of wine at lunchtime and this, combined with the effects of the flu and Benylin, led her to appear unsteady and incoherent when she appeared before the Sheriff”.
Mr B said it not had been a wilful decision on the part of Ms A to enter the court intoxicated but she did have a drink problem and had been drinking.
He told the court she had “lost her business, almost lost her life and had lost her son” as a result of her alcoholism.
“This catalytic event made her hit rock bottom and resulted in her realisation of what she was doing to herself. Prior to this she had thought she was coping,” said Mr B.
Ms A had now been sober for two years, he said. She had regained joint custody of her son and worked for a law firm as part of a family law team.
Despite that, the tribunal deemed Ms A’s actions to be “serious and reprehensible”, and said her actions could have brought the profession into disrepute.
It was “reckless” to drink alcohol when unwell and on medication, the tribunal said, and ruled that she must have realised she was unfit to continue.
Ms A was ordered to pay the complainer and tribunals’ costs, despite her solicitor’s plea that she would find this difficult as she was still paying back debts from her former business.
The report said the decision to hide Ms A’s identity was made from a consideration that publicity could have a “detrimental effect on third parties including minors”.
Derek Manson-Smith, a children’s panel member for 19 years and co-convener of The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, said today: “Withholding her identification needs to be justifiable against the public interest, and I don’t see the justification of keeping the woman’s name out of it.
“I don’t accept that revealing the solicitor’s name could reveal the children’s identities. It’s a spurious reason, and I think they should be challenged by the press in principle.”
Asked if they agreed with the decision not to publish Ms A’s name, a Law Society spokeswoman said it would not be appropriate to criticise such decisions made by the SSDT.
The spokeswoman said they would not challenge the decision to let the woman carry on with her legal career.
“There would have to be a very strong reason for doing so, and it would be taken to the Court of Session,” she said. “Generally, challenges are only made on legal grounds, and it would be an extreme decision to make.”
The SSDT was contacted to comment on their decision, but no-one was available.