A regional firm which acted for a client in divorce proceedings despite being advised that a conflict could arise has been fined £5,000 and ordered to pay more than £26,000 in costs.
In an agreed outcome with the SRA, signed off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), south-east firm Howell Jones accepted it made a professional misjudgement. However, the SDT judgment noted that the firm had not engaged in any ‘wilful or deliberate misconduct’ or disregarded the rules.
According to the agreed outcome, the firm acted for a client, referred to as ‘Client A’, in a case concerning the financial remedy aspects of his divorce.
Client A had emailed the firm unhappy at the proposed settlement and division of assets. Howell Jones then subsequently took advice from counsel on whether it had advised its client to ‘under-settle’ the claim.
Counsel, who was not named, told the firm the settlement was unfair to Client A. Counsel concluded that Client A may still be able to resile from the settlement as it still needed to be approved by the Family Court, but told the firm that there was ‘clear conflict of interest’ in respect of the firm acting for Client A over any attempt to resile from the settlement.
Howell Jones wrote to the firm’s professional indemnity insurer outlining two options: tell Client A it could no longer work for him and that he should obtain independent legal advice; or admit that Client A had been given poor advice and explain he could either get independent legal advice or continue to work with the firm to try and overturn the agreement.
The firm subsequently wrote to Client A recommending the second option but did not reference a potential own interest conflict.
The application to set aside the divorce settlement was dismissed and costs were awarded against Client A.
According to the agreed outcome, Howell Jones believed it was doing right thing and was seeking to put things right. It added that it was satisfied there was no own interest because it agreed in advance to underwrite the costs so it did not have a financial interest. The firm added that it believed it was acting with Client A’s best interests in mind.
The full costs order totalled £26,850.