Solicitors face two years in prison for ignoring Legal Ombudsman

The High Court will impose fines and prison sentences on lawyers who fail to comply with the orders of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), it has been warned.

Ruling in the first case to be pursued by LeO against a lawyer who failed to comply with its requests, Mr Justice Lindblom warned that solicitors could be sentenced to up to two years in prison for non-compliance.

He said: “Undoubtedly there will be cases, though they are likely to be more extreme in their facts than this, in which the court will see no option but to impose a sentence of immediate imprisonment for a failure to comply with a requirement imposed under section 147 of the [Legal Services] 2007 Act.”

The warning comes in a judgment handed down yesterday in which a Lancashire-based solicitor was slapped with a £5,000 fine and told to pay £15,500 in costs because he failed to help LeO with an investigation into his allegedly negligent conduct.

Howard Young, who practised with Bolton-based firm CMG Law and later with Stirling Law, is the first solicitor to be taken to court by LeO under the terms of the Legal Services Act (LSA).

He was alleged to have built up serious delays while acting for a consumer in an employment matter, causing the tribunal to collapse.

Young was also alleged to have been paid £500 by the same client to make a claim on an insurance policy after he told the client they could recoup the money at a later date. Further delays, however, meant that time expired before litigation could get underway and they were unable to recover any money.

LeO instructed One Crown Office Row’s Philip Havers QC to take proceedings against Young to the High Court.

It argued that the solicitor’s failure to comply with its demands should be treated “as if he were in contempt of court” under the LSA.

Ruling, Lindblom J said Young had “consciously persisted in his default for about two and a half months, apparently ignoring the Ombudsman’s process entirely”.

He ordered the solicitor to pay £5,000, but said that in other cases where the Ombudsman had been ignored the fines could be increased and a prison sentence imposed. Lawyers can expect an unlimited fine or maximum two-year prison sentence for failure to comply with the LSA.

From April next year, law firms and lawyers who have had a series of complaints upheld against them will be named and shamed by the LeO (7 November 2011).