The senior partner of north-east firm Raleys Solicitors has been banned from practising law for four years over his role in handling compensation claims from sick coalminers.
At the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) Derek Firth was one of six Raleys partners to face a series of allegations from the Solicitors Regulation Authority over its relationship with the National Union of Miners (NUM).
The firm’s second equity partner David Barber was suspended from practice for two years while partner Jonathan Markham was handed a six-month suspension.
Three junior partners – Carol Gill, James Gladman, and Katherine Richards – were each handed a £10,000 fine for their conduct.
At the centre of the case was the allegation that Raleys had taken a £4m loan from the NUM without advising the union to take independent legal advice. At the same time the firm was processing personal injury claims for union members.
SDT chairman Richard Leverton said that because Raleys did not instruct the union to take independent advice the union was unable to properly monitor its relationship with the firm.
According to Leverton, while Firth negotiated and obtained the loan, it was the duty of all the partners to ensure that the union was given independent advice. The junior partners involved, he said, were “totally ignorant of their professional duties”.
The firm was also found guilty of failing to inform clients who used the miners’ compensation scheme of their full rights, including that they had the choice to use another firm that would not deduct a percentage from their compensation payment to pay the NUM for its referral.
Evidence presented to the tribunal, said Leverton, showed that clients were rarely met by a Raleys lawyer, despite having their case referred to the firm by NUM.
Clients were also told that the NUM claims handling agreement (CHA) was the best route to redress with the firm failing to adequately explain that other methods of gaining compensation were available.
“It was in Raleys interest to keep quiet on the NUM CHA and have a continuing flow of work,” said Leverton.
The news comes after Beresfords Solicitors partners Jim Beresford and Douglas Smith were struck off at an earlier tribunal for professional misconduct in failing to act in the best interest of their clients while handling miners’ compensation claims (11 December ).
The duo were found guilty of taking a cut of the compensation payments awarded to their clients.
Leverton stressed that Raleys had not “kept a penny” of the compensation it had won on behalf of clients and, he added, there was “no suggestion that Raleys service was in anyway deficient”.
In a statement the firm said it was considering an appeal against the judgment.
Bevan Brittan partner Iain Miller instructed Timothy Dutton QC of Fountain Court Chambers to act for the SRA.
Beachcroft instructed Gregory Treverton-Jones of 39 Essex Street to act for Raleys.