The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) criticised the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) over its handling of an investigation and subsequent prosecution of an “honest and credible” partner, Mr Vincent Gray, of the Greater Manchester practice, Dunne and Gray.
The case highlights how the SRA can cause significant distress by taking years between investigating a matter and issuing a Rule 5 statement. The pressure on Mr Gray was further intensified when the authority applied for a costs order against him, despite the fact they lost the case.
The facts of the case
Between March 2014 and January 2015, the SRA’s Professional Ethics department received several applications from Dunne and Gray seeking to withdraw unclaimed credit balances from its client account, totalling approximately £20,000. The purpose was to transfer those monies to the Solicitors’ Benevolent Fund, pursuant to Rule 20.1(k) of the SRA Accounts Rules 2011 as the clients were considered untraceable.
In late 2014, an inspection of the firm revealed several settled cases had been absent of client instructions to do so. The disbursements and profit costs had thereby been recovered. Mr Gray supervised all of these cases.
Dunne and Gray denied any allegation of misconduct and Mr Gray argued he had always acted within the scope of his authority.
In 2017, the SRA’s investigating officer referred the case to the SDT.
The SRA claimed that by permitting personal injury claims to be settled without proper instructions, Mr Gray failed to act in his clients’ best interests, contrary to Rule 1.04 of the 2007 Code and/or Principle 4 of the Principles. To act in the best interests of a client, a solicitor must be satisfied that he has adequate instructions from a client to settle a personal injury claim, as without this, it is impossible to ascertain whether the damages offered are acceptable to the personal injury victim. Such actions would undermine public trust and confidence in the legal profession, contrary to Rule 1.06 of the 2007 Code and/or Principle 6 of the Principles.
Mr Gray successfully argued that the best interests of the clients were always at the forefront of his mind. The law firm had instructions and therefore the authority to act as it did, and this extended to the ability to settle matters. Each settlement accepted was always in the clients’ best interests; if the amount had not been accepted, it was highly likely the clients would have received nothing. Mr Gray believed his duty to carry out his clients’ instructions which were broadly, in low-value personal injury claims such as these, to get the client some money. He emphatically denied that he was motivated by the desire to obtain costs.
The SDT fully accepted that Mr Gray had acted in his clients’ best interests, stating he was an honest and credible witness. With regards to paying the SRA’s costs, the Tribunal stated:
“There was nothing about [Mr Gray’s] conduct of the proceedings that justified a conclusion that he should have to pay the [SRA’s] costs. He had cooperated throughout and had been largely consistent in what he had said from the outset of the investigation to the hearing. The documentary evidence had not been well presented by the [SRA] and the rule five statement had been set out case by case rather than allegation by allegation which had not assisted the tribunal. At least one key document referred to [in the investigation report] was not in the papers before the tribunal”.
Be prepared to defend your decisions and actions
The vindication of Mr Gray, whose practice receives outstanding reviews from past clients, is an illustration of how the SRA can bring a prosecution even when a solicitor fully believes they have acted in the client’s best interests. Investing in experienced legal advice and representation is key to exposing any procedural flaws in the SRA’s case and putting forward a credible and robust defence.
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