Suspension upheld for barrister who held client money
The High Court has upheld a three-month suspension against a commercial barrister for wrongly telling a solicitor in an email that he was entitled to hold £400,000 of client money.
Oliver White, who formerly practised at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, told the court that the email was sent in the ‘heat of the moment’ and that the implications of the suspension would be ‘catastrophic’.
White was suspended for emailing a solicitor - named as John McConkey of the High Court Enforcement Group - stating that, in respect to handling £400,000 of client money, he was entitled to conduct litigation with ‘all the same freedoms that a solicitor is able to operate within’.
The bar disciplinary tribunal said that he was not entitled to conduct litigation, and was not entitled to receive, control or handle clients’ money.
It also said that the purpose of writing the statement was to dissuade the High Court Enforcement Group from complaining to the Bar Standards Board over White breaching the rules on handling client money.
In his appeal, White said that the tribunal had failed to take in account that he had acted in the heat of the moment and said he should be credited with displaying genuine remorse.
He said that his email was a ‘reckless, knee-jerk reaction’ to a complaint by McConkey, and said he did not know BSB rules prohibited him from handling client money. The email was never intended to discourage McConkey from complaining, he said.
White added that the implications of a suspension would cause enormous harm to his professional reputation and would have a severe impact on his direct-access work.
But, sitting in the High Court, Mr Justice Garnham dismissed White's appeal. He said that White’s email was ‘plainly’ designed to allay the concerns of McConkey, which had caused McConkey to threaten to make a complaint.
He said White’s argument that the email was sent in the heat of the moment was ‘hopeless’ as White had received a letter from McConkey on the same subject a week earlier.
Garnham said: ‘It is perfectly clear that Mr White had had some days to reflect on an appropriate response to that letter and to the suggestion that there might be something amiss about the fact that client money had been held by Mr White in his chambers’ account.’
He said that the three-month suspension was an ‘entirely appropriate and proportionate response’ to the breach of professional standards.
Garnham added: ‘I have no doubt that it will impact upon his reputation, upon the nature and quality of instructions he receives hereafter, on his chambers’ attitude towards him and on his financial circumstances… but nonetheless the conduct … was seriously below the standard expected of a barrister.’
An entry posted on White’s personal website says that White stopped practising at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square on 2 December.