A FORMER solicitor from South Shields has been spared jail by magistrates who heard he was driving illegally.

Paul Atkinson was given a community punishment order after a glowing character reference from a practising South Tyneside lawyer.

Magistrates were told that the 52-year-old had been banned from driving for 18 months after a drink driving incident in February last year.

But on January 6, patrolling police officers spotted Atkinson, of Downham Court, driving a car on New George Street, South Shields.

The officers followed the car on to Laygate Lane, then behind New Green Street, where they lost sight of it for a few seconds.

Magistrates were told that as the officers rounded a corner, they saw Atkinson walking towards them, having abandoned the car with the engine still running and his son in the front passenger seat.

Derek Walker, defending, handed the court a letter from Atkinson's current employer, a north-based engineering firm, before asking South Shields solicitor Keith Hawling to take the stand.

Mr Hawling told magistrates he had known Atkinson since his school days. He added: "He is a very intelligent and responsible person at work.

"It would be a disaster if your conclusions prevented Mr Atkinson from continuing that work, both for him and his employers."

Mr Walker added that Mr Atkinson had taken the car to find a chemist, where he was going to buy medication for his sick daughter.

He said: "He knows it was an act of utter folly."

After Atkinson pleaded guilty to driving while disqualified, magistrates retired to carefully consider their sentence for 30 minutes.

They returned to remind him that although the starting point would be jail, he would be given 240 hours of community punishment, as well as banned from driving for 18 months.

He was also told to pay 55 court costs.