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Warning to lawyers as LeO secures first fine

Solicitor escapes jail sentence but courts may have 'no option' in future

21 November 2011

A solicitor has become the first lawyer to be fined by the High Court for failing to cooperate with an investigation by the Legal Ombudsman.

The case was brought under new provisions in the Legal Services Act 2007, which provides that so-called ‘defaulting’ lawyers can face an unlimited fine or a two-year prison sentence.

Mr Justice Lindblom said he considered a custodial sentence but decided that because the defendant was the first practitioner to be involved in such proceedings and because he eventually engaged with LeO, a financial sanction would be adequate.

However, the judge 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 2007 Act.”

Howard Young, who practised in Bolton for CMG Law at the time of the event that gave rise to a complaint, was fined £5,000 plus £15,500 costs for not responding to LeO’s request for information and “apparently ignoring the ombudsman’s process entirely”.

LeO started proceedings against Young after two of his former clients, Mr and Mrs W, complained they had not heard back from him despite repeated phone calls and emails.

The couple said they had instructed Young and paid him £500 on account to deal with an employment tribunal claim and an insurance matter but had not received a bill.

During a phone call to what they believed was CMG Law, they were told that the firm had been wound up and that they were calling another firm, BYL. Young, they were later told, was no longer working there, had left no forwarding address, and their papers were not held at BYL.

Young was later traced at another practice, Stirling Law, in Oldham, where he worked as a consultant.

Lindblom J said in Legal Ombudsman v Howard Robert Gillespie Young [2011] EWHC 2923 (Admin) that, following LeO’s request for information, Young “consciously persisted in his default for about two and a half months”.

LeO chief ombudsman Adam Sampson said the watchdog regretted they had to start court proceedings but that the case would make it “clear to all that in those rare cases where a lawyer fails to cooperate we can use powers to respond appropriately”.

Following parallel proceedings before the SRA, Young was found in breach of conduct rules on two occasions for similar lack of cooperation with the regulator.

In June 2009, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal said Young had failed to deal with the SRA in an “open, prompt and cooperative way” contrary to rule 20.03 of the code of conduct.

The second time, in February 2010, the SDT found similar charges founded. The tribunal considered suspending Young’s practising certificate but eventually decided on a fine of £20,000 instead.

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