A personal injury solicitor who fabricated documents and even paid out from his own account to keep clients happy has been struck off the roll. Paul Andrew Smith, 39, admitted making untrue statements to five clients regarding the progress of their claim between June 2013 and July 2014.
He also admitted making false statements to a third party funder, the union USDAW, and fabricating a letter of instruction to a costs consultancy.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that Smith, who worked for Hull firm Williamsons Solicitors, had ‘messed up’ on a handful of the 170 cases he was handling and did not seek help from colleagues.
Instead he went to great lengths to reassure clients their case was progressing: on one occasion he fabricated a defence letter from defendant solicitors to ‘buy some time’ to get money together and pay the client off, after proceedings had not been served in time.
On another occasion he wrongly told a client that medical evidence had been disclosed to the opposing party, again to delay matters.
The tribunal heard that in another matter Smith had written to a client saying his opponent had offered the sum of £2,250 in full and final settlement for a personal injury claim. Smith later admitted that proceedings in this matter were not served and he had in fact paid the client the sum pledged directly from his bank account.
This happened a second time when, after failing to inform his client that proceedings had not been issued correctly, he paid £2,500 from his own account to settle the matter.
In neither matter where he paid his own clients did he inform them what he had done.
The tribunal heard Smith felt himself inexperienced in personal injury work, having taken on such cases only in the last six months of his training contract.
When his caseload increased to 170 files, he worked from very early in the morning to late into the evening, but when he needed to visit a sick relative in hospital he could no longer keep up this workload.
Smith, who was admitted to the roll in 2011, said he felt his position at the firm was precarious and he was also worried about the consequences of failing to comply with case management orders. He accepted now he should have asked for help at the time and apologised profusely to everyone affected by his conduct.
Smith, who resigned from the firm in August 2015, admitted to not having the confidence to tell clients their case was unlikely to be successful.
Dennis Brewer, giving evidence to the tribunal, said Smith had understated his personal problems and he maintained he was a credit to the profession.
In judgment, the tribunal said it maintained ‘considerable sympathy’ for Smith’s plight and gave careful consideration to sanction.
‘[He] had acted very naively and his inexperience had been his downfall,’ said the SDT. ‘He had got himself into difficulties early on in his career and instead of seeking assistance from senior colleagues he had attempted to deal with the problems on his own using his own money. It was quite clear that he had not wanted clients to suffer losses by virtue of the payments he had made to them from his own personal funds.’
Nevertheless, given the finding of dishonesty it was not felt that a reprimand, restriction order or fine was sufficient sanction.
With no exceptional circumstances advanced, there was no course of action open other than to strike Smith off. He was also ordered to pay £3,847 in costs.
Jim Suthers, director and head of personal injury at Williamsons, said in a statement: ‘Mr Smith was employed by the firm for nine years as a paralegal, a trainee solicitor and then as a qualified solicitor, specialising in personal injuries claims for over five years post qualification.
‘Throughout this period Mr Smith had daily contact with a senior supervisor and he ran a standard PI case load under supervision.
‘Although the general standard of Mr Smith's work was considered to be very good, unfortunately on a small handful of cases he made mistakes regarding the limitation period, which he then deliberately concealed from his supervisor and created false paperwork to avoid detection and to override the firm’s case management system.
‘These mistakes could and would have been remedied with prompt action had Mr Smith disclosed them to his supervisor or departmental head. However Mr Smith chose not to do this but instead embarked upon a series of deliberate acts of concealment to attempt to cover up the initial mistake.
‘Once Mr Smith's actions were discovered Williamsons contacted those clients affected and ensured that the initial mistake was remedied and clients suitably compensated. In accordance with professional standards, the matter was then reported to the SRA.’