‘Conduct unbefitting’ claim levelled as Beresfords tribunal is extended

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal hearing against Jim Beresford of Doncaster-based Beresfords Solicitors has been adjourned due to the case proving more technical than expected.

The hearing, in which Beresford and his colleague Douglas Smith face 11 allegations of misconduct relating to their handling of sick coalminers’ compensation claims, is expected to continue for an additional two days from 10 December.

As reported on TheLawyer.com (17 November), the duo have been up before the tribunal, chaired by David Leverson, for allegedly failing to act in the interests of their clients by taking cuts of payments made to sick miners under the Government’s British Coal compensation schemes.

Fountain Court silk Tim Dutton QC, who is representing the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), opened proceedings by saying Beresford and Smith had misled clients by telling them that they had to take out conditional fee arrangements with the firm.

“Every allegation is serious, with some serious enough to see it as conduct unbefitting [of a solicitor],” Dutton told the tribunal.

The silk added that Beresfords’ practice had expanded due to the amount of work being done for the coalminers’ compensation schemes.

He said: “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.”

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 conditions such as hand-arm vibration syndrome.

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 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 then 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.

As the tribunal continued, Gourgey commenced a scathing attack on the SRA, accusing the legal watchdog of ignoring “false information” ;and ;holding ;a
“biased” investigation (TheLawyer.com, 18 November).

The following day Gourgey went on to tell the tribunal: “We say there is absolutely nothing wrong in a firm earning substantial fees from the conduct of its business.”

The silk claimed that the firm could have faced bankruptcy if the win rate had been lower because of the time and money invested in researching the cases.

He added: “Conditional fee agreements on the scheme claims were all entered into many years ago, and it must be remembered, and is often forgotten, that they amounted to less than one per cent of the scheme claims conducted by Beresfords.”

Beresford also took the stand to deny the charge that he had misled sick
miners over the payment options offered by his firm. He insisted his firm would have made sure clients understood the arrangements they were entering into, adding: “There are some clients with greater needs than others and I would hope people in my firm would go the extra mile to understand that and make sure these explanations were given, and I believe they were. I didn’t steer people towards anything.”

Dutton, however, argued that charging conditional or contingency fees over and above those set out in the scheme was “unacceptable”.

Beresford confirmed that clients who had not been referred through the Union of Democratic Mineworkers were required to enter into ;‘no ;win, ;no ;fee’ ­arrangements with the firm because there was “a ­substantial risk of failure” with the claims.

Dutton suggested that the claims were in fact low-risk due to the DTI payouts, but Beresford disagreed, telling the hearing: “At that point in time we had no idea what the success rate would be.”

As The Lawyer revealed last year (9 April 2007|), Beresford was the UK’s highest-earning lawyer in the 2005-06 financial year, having taken home a total of £16.8m over the 12-month period.