Somatra: top SRT man 'lied' to client

Firm faces £9m bill; Morison J slams ex-SRT chief and Stephenson Harwood partner

Sinclair Roche & Temperley's former senior partner Harvey Williams was found to have deceived, and on one occasion lied, to his client in the professional negligence case that last week left the firm facing a liability of £9m.
The damning judgment also found that ex-Sinclair Roche lawyer Joe Atkinson, now a shipping litigation partner at Stephenson Harwood, was an unsatisfactory witness, and provided evidence that was “at the expense of the truth”.
Sinclair Roche acted for shipowner Somatra in its claim against its underwriter, which denied liability for losses arising out of the sinking of a Somatra-owned supertanker.
Mr Justice Morison found that Somatra, represented by Herbert Smith, justifiably lost confidence in Sinclair Roche's ability to conduct the case. Somatra had to settle for a lower sum than it would otherwise have obtained.
The £9m liability relates to £3.2m of damages and estimated interest and costs.
The judgment said that Williams tried to “lie his way out of [a] position” after he issued a draft instruction to an expert witness without having told Somatra. In evidence, Williams claimed his secretary had sent it out to the witness without his permission and that he later realised “an error had been made… but wanted to bury the mistake [or cover it up] and regretted having been 'dishonest'”.
Judge Morison concluded that he could not accept this “office accident story”, as Williams would have simply told Somatra rather than lie about it. The judgment also said that Williams gave incorrect information about the availability of his barrister, Ken Rokison QC. The judge concluded that Williams had “deceived his clients” in relation to an expert witness instruction and his instruction to Rokison.
Judge Morison found that Williams' comments to his clients in one meeting “could not be true”. The judgment said Williams “lost his temper, banged the desk” and said he did not want to continue with the case. But immediately afterwards he apologised. During the meeting, Williams changed his story over whether the meeting would be a “lawyers' meeting” or not. The judge concluded: “Whether or not it was referred to as a lie, both what he initially said and what he later said could not be true.”
At another meeting, Williams made faces and fiddled with pencils, interrupted others from contributing and did not appear to be up to speed with details, all of which was “damaging to his clients' interests”.
Judge Morison found that Williams “greatly misjudged and distrusted” his clients.
As a witness, some of Atkinson's evidence “left a lot to be desired”. For instance, Somatra employees alleged that Atkinson had told them he thought Williams was “manipulative”. In court Atkinson denied this, to which Judge Morison concluded: “He may have been trying to shield his principal, which is understandable, but not at the expense of the truth.”
Atkinson made few attendance notes of important meetings, implied that one Somatra employee could not be trusted, and in certain respects had a lack of appreciation of the trial process.
Sinclair Roche's claim of contributory negligence against Somatra was “hopeless”, the judge found.
However, Judge Morison would not order an abatement of the firm's fees for the time it acted for Somatra. Sinclair Roche and its lawyers Ince & Co were unavailable for comment.