From llama farmer to trail-blazing lawyer

SOLICITORS Indemnity Fund (SIF) campaigner Michael Dalton is used to going the distance. As a marathon runner he is proud of his powers of endurance and his ability to keep going when things gets tough.

That is just as well. Dalton, a commercial property specialist from Portsmouth, is engaged in a David and Goliath-style battle against SIF, which looks set to run and run. Cherie Booth QC, who is representing Dalton, adds an element of glamour to his struggle.

Dalton is attacking the very foundation of SIF. He is seeking leave to bring a judicial review of his SIF bill on the basis that the SIF rules contravene the Treaty of Rome and are therefore void. A directions hearing is due to be heard on 24 March at the High Court.

On 11 March the Law Society and Dalton, who has paid no SIF contributions since September 1998, are due to go back to the High Court to clarify the duration of a Law Society undertaking not to revoke his practising certificate.

SIF may be a controversial subject within the profession, but Dalton is the only solicitor to, in his words, “stick his head, shoulders and entire body above the parapet”. The reason probably lies in Dalton's character and his annoyance at the bizarre set of circumstances that led to his SIF bill being hiked to a level he claims is beyond his ability to pay.

Dalton comes across as down to earth and hugely energetic. He talks ten to the dozen and admits to being rather impatient: a man of action as well as words.

He describes himself as a fanatical believer in personal responsibility. “It is up to people to make things happen and I can't stand people who don't accept responsibility,” he says.

Dalton clearly has a competitive streak. He has twice completed the London Marathon and still runs 20 miles each week. He once entered the Four Peaks Challenge with a team that came fourth.

However, running has largely been replaced by his marathon fight against SIF, which he says “in all seriousness” is dominating his life.

“I have often asked myself what on earth am I doing here, assuming this warrior-like approach and taking on the Law Society of England and Wales, but something had to be done and I would never shirk from that,” he says.

According to a source, there is no question about Dalton's integrity. “He is a decent bloke and a pretty good solicitor. He comes across as a really nice person who is trying to fight his corner and everyone else's. There are a lot of people out there hoping he is successful.”

Dalton says he is “principled but pragmatic”, although he concedes he has come under pressure from staff at his own firm, Michael Dalton Solicitors, to “just pay the money”. He says he stands to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs if he is unsuccessful.

He is philosophical about the risks he is personally running by bringing the judicial review, simply stating that if he gives up “someone else will stand in [my] shoes”.

But Dalton was not always so involved in the principles of legal practice. In fact, for a period spanning most of 1989 to 1992, he had a radical career change – giving up legal practice to farm a herd of llamas in Devon for “personal reasons”.

Dalton says: “The 1980s were good for business, but it was a macho decade and there was an enormous price to pay. I decided to opt out of the rat race around about the time of the birth of my first son, because I thought there was little point in earning money if I couldn't enjoy it.”

However llama farming proved to be rather unprofitable and Dalton returned to practice in 1992, setting up as a sole practitioner under the name Michael Dalton Solicitors. Another partner joined his firm in 1993.

In the meantime, the Law Society had introduced a claims-loading system, which doubled his insurance premium from £11,250 to £22,500, due to claims made against his former firm, Daltons. The claims covered a period during which Dalton had quit the practice and was llama farming, but his name remained on the practice letterhead.

Dalton felt the SIF hike was unfair, since he says he had only had one claim made against him in the 1980s, which had cost the fund about £5,000. He added his protests to a rising chorus of dissent over SIF contributions, which included both sole practitioners and City firms.

Ironically, says Dalton, the initial SIF contributions hike “seems insignificant” compared with the £68,000 he now owes the fund, although he maintains his firm couldn't afford to pay it at the time.

What particularly irks him is that the increased contributions led to the breakdown of his firm. The partnership dissolved in December 1996 and Dalton became a sole practitioner again in 1997 until he was joined by another partner last September.

Although Dalton admits he “hates committees”, he says he is not anti-establishment. He is president of the South East Hampshire Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Based in offices on Hayling Island, about 10 miles from Portsmouth, or “one mile as the fish swims”, Dalton is now preparing himself for the fight ahead.

A self-confessed landlubber, despite the marine location of his offices, Dalton relaxes by taking to the hills and “escaping from it all”.

Given the amount of stress generated by the SIF saga so far, he'd better make the most of it.