A tribunal has ruled that a solicitor who misled two clients about their cases made ‘errors and muddles’ – but was not dishonest.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that Ian Clay’s actions lacked the ‘moral compass’ expected of a solicitor when he failed to inform clients that cases were in jeopardy or had been struck out. Clay submitted this was a case of ‘simple negligence’ which did not amount to dishonesty or a lack of integrity.

Following a three-day hearing, the tribunal found Clay lacked integrity by giving a misleading impression to cover his own failures and putting his own interests before those of a client. But while dishonesty and integrity may be ‘kindred and related matters’, the tribunal said they were distinct concepts for the purposes of professional conduct.

Clay had not intended to deliberately mislead and on that basis he had not acted dishonestly, the tribunal ruled.

The tribunal said Clay’s conduct was the ‘natural consequence of [his] over confidence and an apparent laissez-faire attitude towards his clients’ cases’.

‘There had been no overt motivation, rather there had been a series or errors and muddles made by Mr Clay with respect to [the clients],’ added the tribunal. ‘Genuine mistakes were badly handled by Mr Clay, and he allowed matters to spiral to the extent that his clients were prejudiced and disadvantaged.’

Clay, admitted in 2009, was director, manager and owner of south Yorkshire firm Walker & Co. He was dismissed by the firm for gross misconduct in February 2020.

A friend and former colleague had instructed Clay to work on her employment case in 2018, but Clay failed to submit any evidence and did not attend the court hearing on her behalf. She described Clay as ‘evasive’ in response to several requests for updates and 18 months passed in total with no progress being made and no updates.

Clay told the tribunal he was guilty of delaying a difficult conversation with a friend. His firm had cashed a cheque on her behalf sent on the basis it would end the claim, but she had wanted to fight on. The tribunal found that Clay chose not to explain the situation and allowed for summary judgment to be made against his client without telling her for three months.

In the other matter, it was alleged that Clay failed to make a client aware that an unless order had been made and what the consequences would be of non-compliance. The SRA said he further misled the client by emailing her after the claim had been struck out saying it was unlikely to succeed. Clay submitted he told the client what she needed to know and that deeper legal issues ‘would have served only to confuse her’.

The tribunal found his failure to set out the full and accurate position – and then to ask for further instructions from the client – was a ‘breach and departure from the ethical standards of the profession’.

He was suspended for six months and ordered to pay £12,000 costs.