A former law firm director has been banned from the profession after threatening to expose an unfavourable opposition witness as a benefits cheat.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that Gillian Margaret Walker, whilst with now-liquidated Lancashire firm Opes Law Limited, had sought to dissuade the witness from giving evidence in holiday sickness proceedings.
Walker’s firm acted on behalf of a claimant bringing a personal injury action against a tour operator represented by defendant firm Kennedys Law. The claimant’s ex-girlfriend, who had been on the holiday with him, had given a statement and was prepared to say that he did not fall ill as alleged.
In May 2017, Walker wrote to the witness as director of the firm and explained why the claimant objected to her giving oral evidence. The letter noted that ‘we have reason to believe you have acted dishonestly or deliberately to claim benefits’ before adding that ‘your credibility will be seriously questioned if the court permits you to give oral evidence’. The letter concluded: ‘We trust you will consider matters very carefully in view of the allegation made against you.’
Kennedys referred the matter to the SRA, and the regulator told the tribunal that the letter made an ‘implied threat’ to expose the witness to put pressure on her to change her account or not to give evidence.
Walker submitted the allegations were a ‘desperately imaginative and skewed interpretation’ of the facts, saying the letter was carefully worded to avoid any threat.
Funding that Walker’s ‘passion in the defence of her client had crossed the line into misconduct’, the tribunal concluded that no lawyer acting with integrity would have written in these terms.
On separate charges, Walker was also found to have failed to ensure her position as a manager was approved by the SRA, and failed to properly inform the firm’s clients of the details of its fee sharing arrangements.
The tribunal barred Walker from working for a law firm without the SRA’s permission and ordered her to pay £15,000 in costs.