A divorce solicitor who failed to disclose an intimate relationship with his client has been fined £8,500 for a lack of integrity.

Law firm owner Richard Harbord, 59, was representing a mother in acrimonious divorce proceedings when the relationship developed in November 2014.

The couple travelled to Barcelona and Harbord spent Christmas 2014 with her, before he called the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s ethics advice line regarding the relationship. According to his attendance note, Harbord was told he could continue to give impartial advice and the relationship was not an issue.

According to a judgment published this month, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal said there had been little harm to the reputation of the legal profession from his actions but it had to act to deter other solicitors from behaving in the same way. As well as the fine, he must also pay £9,483 costs.

The tribunal also called for more clarity from the SRA, which twice appeared to advise Harbord that he could continue to represent the client after he sought guidance.

The tribunal heard that in February 2015 a court ordered the client’s husband to pay £16,000 a month to cover her legal costs.

After a trip to Paris, together with the client’s children, the husband’s solicitors raised the issue of relations between his wife and the solicitor: he was told this was subject to professional privilege. The tribunal said this response amounted to having ‘buried his head in the sand’.

It was not until June 2015, after which the relationship had become intimate, that Harbord disclosed what was happening prior to a court hearing. The judge in the case criticised Harbord’s conduct and he was referred to the SRA. 

Harbord, who is divorced and who practised under the name Harbord & Co from offices in Epsom, Surrey, stated he was able to provide independent advice and there was no conflict of interest. He denied breaching SRA principles, although he accepted he did not inform the husband’s solicitors of the nature of the relationship when asked.

The tribunal dismissed any rule breaches alleged before March 2015 but ruled he had failed to act with integrity in the months following this date. He allowed his independence to be compromised, failed to comply with his duties to the court and failed to behave in a way that maintained the public trust in the profession.

In mitigation, Harbord said the relationship was ongoing and would continue for the foreseeable future. There was no suggestion he failed to provide a proper standards of service and he had been open and frank with the SRA.

As a postscript to its judgment, the tribunal criticised the SRA’s ethics advice as ‘at best opaque’. He would have been helped by clear and unequivocal advice, and the SDT asked whether the regulator might consider revising its guidance, particular in respect of family matters.