The High Court has overturned a tribunal decision to fine a solicitor who overcharged for costs, ruling that he should immediately be struck off.
In Solicitors Regulation Authority v Good, Lord Justice Flaux said the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal should have found that solicitor Andrew Good acted dishonestly. Instead it had imposed a ‘clearly inappropriate’ fine of £30,000.
The tribunal found that Good, founder of Hull firm Rapid Response, had set a £400 hourly rate for clinical negligence cases as a matter of policy, producing bills that were ‘unreasonable and disproportionate’. On one detailed assessment, the tribunal heard, a district judge had reduced a bill of costs by 91% to £3,330.
Good was found to have acted without integrity, but the tribunal dismissed an allegation of dishonesty, determining that Good believed he was entitled to ‘test the rate’ and that bills would be subject to the scrutiny of costs experts.
Flaux LJ said the tribunal’s analysis was ‘fundamentally flawed’ and was satisfied there were ‘clear and obvious’ errors of principle in its decision.
‘Even if Mr Good had a genuine belief that he was entitled to charge these rates, it is difficult to see how this could exonerate him from a finding of dishonesty in the light of the findings of fact as to his knowledge and deliberate misconduct,’ said the judge. ‘The only proper conclusion would have been that, in rendering the bills which he knew to be excessive or grossly excessive and artificially high, Mr Good was dishonest in the first place.’
In appealing against the tribunal finding and sanction, the SRA argued that the evaluation exercise was defective, deficient and insufficient. In opting not to strike Good off, the SDT had failed to appreciate the gravity of his misconduct and the fundamental need to protect the reputation of the profession.
Lawyers for Good said the NHS Litigation Authority, the defendant in clinical negligence cases, was not a naïve litigator and was free to check the grade of each named fee-earner. The SDT, they said, had seen Good give evidence over three days and had spent many hours making an assessment of him and his motivation.
But Flaux LJ said the tribunal’s evaluation was a ‘miscalibration of the seriousness of the misconduct and downplays significantly its seriousness’. Even without a finding of dishonesty, Good was found to have deliberately set artificially high rates as part of a planned policy to seek inflated costs. The judge added: ‘I do not consider that the public would regard it as acceptable that someone who breached that trust in the way in which Mr Good did should be allowed to act as a solicitor.’
The tribunal order was quashed and substituted for a sanction that Good be struck off.
* The judgment noted that a consent order has been settled between the parties in relation to the SRA appeal regarding Danielle Park, manager of the firm’s costs department. The regulator had challenged the tribunal’s finding that allegations against Park were unproven. The judgment does not state the outcome of the consent order.