A number of things about the letter from solicitors Park Fallon & Co struck Michael Horwood, senior partner with Sidmouth firm Ford Simey Dowe Roberts, as strange.
For a start, it concerned an unusual case involving the disputed ownership of a rare film documenting the life of Charlie Chaplin which was up for sale at Christie’s.
Second, the standard declamation “regulated by the Law Society in the conduct of investment business” was missing from the bottom of the letter.
Third, there was the phone number. The dialling code 01 had been crossed out in pen and replaced with 0181, which meant that the letterhead was at least 10 years old.
Finally, the letter had been typed on a manual typewriter rather than a word processor.
His suspicions aroused, Horwood contacted the Law Society in late 1997. It turned out that Horwood was the victim of an, admittedly unconvincing, bogus solicitor.
At the end of January, James Chalmers Park was convicted on six counts of deception and fined £3,000, plus £1,000 costs, following a private prosecution by the Law Society. The Crown Prosecution Service decided that because there was no question of fraud, it would not take the matter further and left the profession to sort it out.
Chalmers Park says he was more “naive than dishonest”. A former solicitor with 21 years’ of experience, struck off in 1988 after a Law Society investigation into allegations of money laundering which he still strenuously denies, he claims to have done no legal work for the past 11 years. “I’ve turned down former clients who come to me and ask if I can sort out their divorce,” he says.
But then one day, an old family friend came to him for some advice over the Chaplin film and, working pro bono, he “mistakenly” used his old notepaper. (The Law Society says Chalmers Park was given a warning about the note paper in 1993.)
Few would claim that Chalmers Park represents a major threat to the legal profession, but his case highlights some important issues with potentially much more significant consequences for the profession.
The thing about Chalmers Park, of course, is that he was caught only because his deceit was so incompetently executed.
Despite his assertions that he had not advertised himself as a solicitor, there was very little to stop him if he had.
Chalmers Park recalls one afternoon last year when a barrister from a London set turned up to tout for work it took him more than an hour to convince counsel that he was wasting his time. Obviously news of his practice’s status had not trickled through to the profession and, he thinks, his firm was still in some directories.
The case might be unusual Chalmers Park was the first Law Society prosecution for 10 years but how many other bogus lawyers are there in business?
Earlier this year bogus barrister Andre John-Salakov was found guilty of trying to swindle the National Lottery and other groups out of more than u10m.
John-Salakov posed as a barrister and approached numerous local authorities and charities for loans in order to set up a free advice and advocacy service.
According to the prosecution, unsuspecting clients lost thousands of pounds after going to a public law centre he set up in South Norwood, London. John-Salakov even represented clients in court, although the advice he offered was described as “downright incompetent”.
He was found guilty on 19 counts, including deception and the “conduct of litigation without entitlement”. In March he was sentenced to two and half years imprisonment.
January saw the conclusion of the Tina Morrow affair, in which Morrow was restrained from working for a law firm or in-house legal department, even as a receptionist, without the Law Society’s permission.
For more than a year, Morrow was a senior solicitor with Burnley council. She arrived with excellent references from a neighbouring council and routine internal checks confirmed she was a qualified practising solicitor. Only she was not. She failed to complete her articles and was not registered with the Law Society.
Between 1992 and 1995 American Jeffrey Doss-Lindsey fooled the Law Society, senior figures in top City firms and recruitment companies with a CV packed with a litany of lies including his first-class Oxford degree, membership of the Californian Bar and a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. He even forged the signature of a dying man on a false practising certificate.
Doss-Lindsey was employed in turn by Slaughter and May, White & Case and Allison & Humphreys, and was only undone by his arrogance taking on cases he could not possibly handle. Even after the Law Society received a five-page report from Allisons on the conman, he managed to get another practising certificate for a short time.
Speaking to the Lawyer at the time, Charles Humphreys, senior partner at Allisons, said: “I question whether one cheat should mean every applicant through the door gets a lamp shined in their eyes. It could raise questions about applicants who exaggerate their achievements on CVs.”
David McNeill, head of the Law Society press office, says: “Anyone can give legal advice and as long as they don’t use the term solicitor they’re all right. Citizens Advice Bureaux are a good example. But the term solicitor implies a number of things a baseline of training, indemnity protection offered by the Solicitors Indemnity Fund and the protection offered by the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors.”
The Law Society now has a fast-track system in place for instigating prosecutions against bogus solicitors.
McNeill says immigration is a particular area where vulnerable people can be exploited by fake solicitors within immigrant communities, who might often have legal training gained in another country but know little or nothing about the English system. He explains: “These conmen can rip people off by asking them to pay hundreds of pounds, often for forms which any firm could get free of charge.”
But he also points to a more subtle form of deception practised on the public by organisations who give the false impression of having legal training without actually claiming to be solicitors.
Three years ago the Law Society sued the Society of Lawyers for passing off. The group consisted of a collection of non-lawyers, such as ex-policemen and bailiffs, offering legal advice. McNeill says that at heart the society was a scam, a pyramid selling scheme.
The case helped to establish that the term “lawyer” should be treated like “solicitor” and “barrister” under the 1974 Solicitors Act.
It is understood that the Law Society is now similarly anxious about claims assessors, such as Claims Direct, which act as intermediaries between plaintiffs, solicitors and insurance companies all for a fee.
A source at the Law Society says the complaint is about Claims Direct’s recent advertising campaign, screened on cable TV, in which a scholarly-looking gentleman sits in a library surrounded by leather-bound tomes talking about claims that have been settled. “If he’s not pretending to be a solicitor, what is he pretending to be?” asks the source.
Peter Carlisle from Claims Direct says: “I don’t agree with that. The last thing he appears to be is a solicitor. Our claims managers know that giving legal advice is a big taboo.”
The company issues a fair trading statement explaining its role and gives a two-week cooling off period. What is more, he says, 10 per cent of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyer firms are on its panel to provide the legal input.
The John-Salakov affair aside, Mark Stobbs from the Bar Council’s professional standards committee says the Bar is not too concerned about bogus counsel.
The ongoing wrangle between the Bar Council and those not in independent practice over the rights of “non-practising” barristers shows how strongly the Bar is prepared to defend the honour of the term “barrister”.
While no one thinks the legal profession is being flooded by charlatans, some fear there are not enough safeguards in place to protect the profession or the public. With the law changing so rapidly and the public often intimidated by the legal process, there must be a better way of weeding out bogus lawyers than hoping they use an old letterhead.