Two partners in a personal injury firm have received increased sanctions for their part in authorising an improper loan from the collapsed Axiom Legal Financing Fund.
David Fenton Wingate and Stephen Edward Evans, directors of Manchester firm WE Solicitors LLP, were each found guilty of extra charges in the High Court after the SRA had appealed a decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. Mr Justice Holman ruled that findings of lack of integrity should be recorded against Wingate and findings of failing to maintain public trust in the legal profession should be recorded against both.
Wingate was given a three-month suspension and Evans fined £12,000. Each had been fined £3,000 following the original five-day hearing in December 2015.
In a judgment published this month, the tribunal outlined that Wingate had caused or permitted his firm to accept and use £573,000 from the Axiom Fund in circumstances where it was improper for him to do so. The same allegation was found proved against Evans.
Wingate was found to have known the litigation funding agreement did not reflect what the money would be used for and was unsure of when the money would be repaid. He was found to have acted without integrity, as well as having failed to handle client money in accordance with the rules, and failed to run his firm effectively.
Evans was found guilty of the same charges in relation to client money and running the firm effectively. The tribunal noted that in such a small firm ‘whilst delegation of responsibilities was entirely proper, abandonment of his duties was a partner was not’.
In mitigation, Gregory Treverton-Jones QC, of 39 Essex Chambers, stressed that the misconduct had been inadvertent, the solicitors had been misled by a third party, and their behaviour was a one-off. The pair had cooperated with the investigation and had been able to continue working with no conditions while matters were dealt with.
Treverton-Jones described solicitors such as his clients as the ‘lifeblood of the profession’ whose work was ‘impressive and unimpeachable’. He called on the tribunal not to interfere with the ability of either solicitor to work in the profession.
The tribunal said while no harm had been intended the case had damaged the reputation of the profession, even though the firm had settled its liability through repaying £300,000 to the fund’s receivers.
The tribunal said Wingate’s suspension was enough to reflect the seriousness of the misconduct without being too punitive. Evans’ fine was imposed taking into account his culpability, the harm caused and the aggravating and mitigating factors.
The pair were ordered repay a total of £67,000 costs out of the SRA’s total costs of £134,500.