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Local government solicitor fined by Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after second drink-driving conviction

­A local government solicitor has been fined £2,000 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) after being convicted of a second drink-driving offence.

James Wilson Oram had first been convicted on 9 February 2016 of drink driving. He was fined £800 and disqualified from driving for 20 months. No regulatory action was taken by the SRA in respect of that offence.

In September 2018 Mr Oram – a commercial property specialist then employed at Christchurch and East Dorset District Councils – had gone out for celebratory drinks with work colleagues.

He had not intended to drive that evening but had been notified of a family health emergency which necessitated him getting to a family member’s house in an area where there was no public transport in the evening.

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After “performing an overly sharp turn”, he was stopped by police who found that his alcohol levels exceeded the prescribed limits. He was convicted for the offence on 17 October 2018 and disqualified from holding or obtaining a driving licence for 40 months.

The SRA referred Mr Oram to the SDT because he had been convicted of a second offence of driving with excess alcohol at a level over twice the legal limit.

The SRA alleged that he had breached the following SRA principles:

  • Principle 2 of the SRA Principles 2011 (“Principles”) by failing to act with integrity and/or;
  • Principle 6 of the Principles by failing to behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in him and the provision of legal services. 

Alastair Willcox, appearing on behalf of the SRA, said Principles 2 and 6 applied to solicitors in relation to activities which fell outside their practice (In Part 2: SRA Principles - application provisions –paragraph 5.1). 

Wilcox argued: “A solicitor engaging in such criminal activity that risked the safety of other members of the public might properly be said to have lacked moral soundness, rectitude and steady adherence to an ethical code so as to lack integrity, in breach of Principle 2.”

Wilcox went on to submit that Mr Oram’s first drink-driving offence was an aggravating feature “because the second offence was committed soon after the disqualification period for the first offence expired”.

In respect of the allegations, Mr Oram did not contest the facts and accepted SRA Principles 2 and 6 applied to the conduct of a solicitor outside legal practice. However, he denied that what he had done constituted a breach of these Principles.

On the allegation of breaching Principle 2, Mr Oram said that he had made substantial efforts to rehabilitate himself which spoke to his character and integrity.

In response to the alleged breach of Principle 6, Mr Oram noted that Mr Willcox’s argument that one must be able to trust a solicitor to the ends of the earth would seem to suggest that he needed to be a paragon of virtue, but everyone made mistakes including solicitors.

He went on to argue that his ability to continue to provide quality legal services to clients was unaffected as he did not practise in criminal law but in non-contentious commercial property work.

In its ruling the Tribunal acknowledged that Mr Oram had not intended to drive that evening.

But the Tribunal also noted that the Respondent had only had his licence back for a matter of months when he committed the second offence.

On the dispute over solicitors being paragons of virtue, the Tribunal referenced Wingate and Evans v SRA [2018] EWCA Civ 366 and said that “solicitors were not expected to be paragons of virtue but Mr Oram had already been through the experience of driving with excess alcohol and being apprehended, convicted and punished".

It said: “Whatever the circumstances, the Respondent had made the decision to drive notwithstanding the experience of his earlier conviction. The Tribunal considered on the facts of this case that a solicitor with integrity would have reached the conclusion he had a problem with alcohol after the first offence. He would have considered the circumstances and done what was necessary.”

The SDT continued: “One offence might be recognised as a mistake but having had that experience the Respondent offended again. The Tribunal felt that the context of the first conviction which led to disqualification from driving led to the conclusion that there was a lack of integrity regarding the conduct leading to the second conviction.”

As such, the Tribunal found the breach of Principle 2 to be proved.

On Principle 6 the Tribunal accepted the oral evidence of Mr Oram’s alcohol dependency and what he had done to address it. 

But it also considered that encountering public sympathy for a dependence on alcohol was not the same as maintaining public confidence. "A second conviction was not what the public expected of solicitors.”

It continued: “The Respondent recognised that he had let himself, his family and the profession down. He recognised that the profession would not tolerate that sort of behaviour. The Respondent denied breach of both Principles and stuck to that position but he acknowledged that the public would be disappointed and shocked and gave evidence that he had received criticism as well as sympathy.”

The Tribunal found breach of Principle 6 and both aspects of allegation 1, allegations 1.1 and 1.2 proved on the evidence to the required standard.

In mitigation Mr Oram submitted that his capacity for alcohol and not knowing how much was in his system had led to his offending. [He had previously in the hearing also submitted that he had worked in private practice where there was a drinking culture involving entertaining clients and he became dependent on alcohol]

He said that he had been severely punished with a 40-month driving ban. The financial penalties and costs imposed upon him had been well in excess of £1,000; to a solicitor in local government that was an awful lot of money. He was not particularly well remunerated compared with others.

Mr Oram added that he had lost an awful lot as a result of his offending. He had taken a step back in the profession; he was now in the same role at Torbay that he had left in 2015.

He also described the adverse impact on his private life of his offending and the financial hardship resulting from his decision to leave his employment. He had to pay both a contribution to the mortgage of the former matrimonial home and rent for a small room so he could walk to work. He submitted that he had made sterling efforts to change.

Mr Oram said he would be worried that he might relapse if a heavy sanction were imposed on him. However, he added that he would do his best to keep going in the right direction whether or not a heavy sanction was imposed.

A testimonial from the Head of Legal Services at Torbay Council, his current employer, referred to having every faith and trust in Mr Oram’s ability to provide quality legal advice and service to the council.

The SDT considered that the conduct had been moderately serious and that an appropriate level of fine would be £5,000.

However, Mr Oram had considerable general and personal mitigation and had already suffered financial penalties in the criminal proceedings. The Tribunal therefore thought it appropriate to reduce the amount of the fine to £2,000.

It also ordered him to pay £2,500 in costs.

Adam Carey

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