A solicitors’ disciplinary hearing against the UK’s richest lawyer, Jim Beresford of Doncaster-based Beresfords Solicitors, kicked off today, with the name partner and his colleague Douglas Smith facing 11 allegations of misconduct.
Fountain Court silk Tim Dutton QC, who is representing the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), began proceedings by saying the duo had misled clients by telling them they had to take out fee arrangements with the firm.
Dutton said: “Every allegation is serious, with some serious enough to see it as conduct unbefitting [of a solicitor].”
The hearing against Beresford and Smith arose from their alleged conduct in relation to their handling of compensation claims from sick coalminers.
As The Lawyer revealed last year (9 April 2007), Beresford became the UK’s richest lawyer in the 2005-06 financial year, having taken home a total of £16.8m in the 12-month period.
In today’s hearing, which is being chaired by David Leverson, Dutton said that Beresfords’ practice expanded due to the coalminers compensation scheme.
“In 2004 gross profit [for the firm] was £8,758,743, but by 2006 the gross profit had more than quadrupled to £36,205,805,” explained Dutton.
Dutton said that by 2004 84 per cent of Beresfords’ work came from the Government’s miners compensation schemes, which were set up to compensate those who had contracted illnesses such as vibration white finger.
The respondents’ counsel, Alan Gourgey QC of 11 Stone Buildings, listened to Dutton recount stories from former miners and the estates of coalminers.
Former miner Rodney Bochenski, who will be giving 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 he 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 ended up receiving a payout of £217.73 after Beresfords, claiming the settlement represented a success, deducted £64.04.
Dutton also outlined the case of a Mr F, who was allegedly told by the firm that he could reduce the success fee on his contingency arrangement to zero if he could refer 15 people to Beresfords.
The hearing continues.