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Newly qualified solicitor struck off over lost work briefcase

Junior lawyer’s fate was sealed when she lied to colleagues about the incident

A newly qualified solicitor who left sensitive client files on the train and lied about it for 24 hours has been banned from the profession.

Claire Louise Matthews was working in the Capsticks clinical law team at the time of the incident. She told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that she “became panic-stricken with the dread of informing Capsticks as to what had happened, particularly as she had only been with the firm a matter of weeks”.

The young solicitor qualified in September 2017 and joined Capsticks at the end of April 2018.

The following month, Matthews was asked to draft a strike-out application that needed to be lodged the next day. She put the necessary files into a borrowed briefcase and left the office, intending to work on the draft from home overnight.

But she feel asleep on the train home from Birmingham to Cheltenham, and forgot to retrieve the briefcase. It was never seen again.

The briefcase contained various confidential documents about a client known as X, including “sensitive personal information relating to X and X’s mother and the psychological impact of the proceedings upon them”.

By unfortunate coincidence, X had already complained about “an alleged failure to handle her data properly”. The briefcase itself had sentimental value to the colleague it was borrowed from: it was a qualification present from her mother.

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When Matthews returned to the office and was asked about its whereabouts, she was overheard telling the colleague that it was at home. She also sent an email to her supervisor saying that “I inadvertently left the suitcase on the train on this [sic] morning when coming into work”.

Matthews came clean the very next morning, admitting that the briefcase had now been missing for a week. She later said that the email had been “sent at a moment of high anxiety” and that she had been “under the influence of alcohol at the time”.

But the SDT described it as “a deliberate attempt to mislead her manager”, on top of the “untrue statement” earlier in the day.

A devastated Matthews told the tribunal that she “had little coherent recollection about the days immediately following the loss of the briefcase and she described the days after 24 May 2018 as the darkest of her life: she barely ate, slept or showered. The respondent said that she also drank alcohol to excess in order block out the event. At her lowest point, the respondent said that she had resorted to drinking bleach in an attempt to end her life.”

The Solicitors Regulation Authority accepted that Matthews had a “background of depression, anxiety and alcohol misuse”. But it said this wasn’t enough to excuse dishonesty in a solicitor.

The disciplinary tribunal agreed, finding that Matthews’ mental health could be given “only limited weight” given that there had been dishonesty in the case.

In assessing costs, the tribunal took into account that Matthews now works at a call centre earning just £9 an hour. She still received a bill of £10,000, on top of being struck off.

In March, a barrister who drunkenly headbutted a colleague was suspended for three months.

Legal Cheek would like to make clear that another solicitor is also called Claire Louise Matthews. She is, of course, entirely unconnected with the Matthews of this story.

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