Beresfords Solicitors partner Jim Beresford has been struck off along with his colleague Douglas Smith after all but three of 11 allegations of professional misconduct against them were upheld by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The duo found themselves in front of the tribunal for failing to act in the interests of their clients by taking a cut of payments made to sick miners under the Government’s British Coal compensation schemes.
On handing down the ruling last week (The Lawyer.com, 11 December), tribunal chair David Leverton said: “These allegations that have been proved are serious. The rules are needed for the proper conduct of the solicitors’ profession. Cases like this have a serious impact on the reputation of the profession and in the eyes of the public.
“Mr Beresford described himself as an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, his attitude allowed himself and Mr Smith to put commercial goals before his clients’ best interests.
“If ever there was a group who needed the full care and attention from solicitors, it was these miners. In our view, the miners were not vulnerable because of their poor health, but by their inability to appreciate legal documents.”
Leverton warned that solicitors who breached the code must expect “severe punishment”.
The upheld allegations included acting in a conflict of interest, failing to give clients adequate advice and information, and creating fee arrangements that were not in the clients’ best interests.
Doncaster-based Beresfords registered 97,500 claims under what is the world’s largest personal injury ;compensation scheme, with the pair’s joint earnings increasing from more than £182,000 in 2000 to £23m in 2006.
As revealed by The Lawyer (9 April 2007), Beresford was the UK’s highest-earning lawyer in the 2005-06 financial year, taking home £16.8m in one year.
In contrast, the miners won small payouts averaging just over £2,000.
During the hearing, Fountain Court silk Tim Dutton QC, who represented the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), said that 84 per cent of Beresfords’ work ;came ;from ;the Government’s ;miners’ compensation schemes, which were set up to compensate those who had contracted conditions such as vibration white finger.
The respondents’ counsel Alan Gourgey QC of 11 Stone Buildings heard Dutton recount stories from both former miners and the families of miners.
Former miner Rodney Bochenski, who gave evidence during the tribunal, took out a contingency arrangement as Beresford did not inform him that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) would cover his legal costs.
Beresfords took a cut of around 25 per cent from the £18,517.81 damages that Bochenski received. The firm also received a fee from the DTI.
In another example, Dutton told of how the widow of a miner known as ‘Mr I’ received a payout of £217.73 after Beresfords, claiming the settlement represented a success, deducted £64.04.
Dutton also outlined the case of ‘Mr F’, who was allegedly told that he could reduce the success fee on his contingency arrangement to zero if he could refer 15 people to Beresfords.
The firm paid £300 in referral fees to claims manager Vendside, a firm owned by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, for each case passed on, under the guise that this fee would be used to pay for “marketing/administration/vetting investigations”.
The SDT upheld the SRA’s claims that money paid to Vendside was in reality a referral fee and that, by attempting to dress it up as a marketing fee, Beresford and Smith had breached the Referral Fee Code (1990).
The duo did not make a statement after the ruling, but the firm’s managing partner Martin Ryan read out a written statement, in which he said that Beresford and Smith intended to appeal to the High Court.
He also said that the decision was not about the two being negligent or having acted in any criminal way. “It must be noted that client money was not misappropriated,” said Ryan. “We also managed to get £221m compensation to miners.”
Beresfords chief executive Mark Farrell said: “We’d like to reassure all our clients that the firm will continue to act in the best interests of our clients.”