A criminal legal aid solicitor has been struck off after watching pornography in his office with a vulnerable female client who had an outstanding bill. Anthony Robert Dart also took photographs of the fully clothed woman in his office and continued to engage with her after she texted to suggest he take topless photos of her.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal described the case as a ‘personal tragedy’ for sole practitioner Dart and quite possibly for criminal legal aid work in the Banstaple region of Devon where he practised.

Dart, 64, had been instructed in May 2013 to represent the unnamed woman, referred to as Miss BC, after she was accused of sending a threatening communication to a GP surgery.

He was instructed on a private retainer as she did not qualify for legal aid, and on Dart's advice she accepted a police caution in July 2013. He then sent a bill for £250 plus VAT.

The two then exchanged emails on the subject of his costs, and Dart was made aware Miss BC, who required an appropriate adult and was 22 at the time, had made a number of complaints and was dissatisfied with the advice provided.

They met in October 2013, and Dart’s attendance note recorded they discussed the costs issue and she accepted the outcome of her case. The ‘good-natured’ meeting then continued with Miss BC saying she hoped to become a model or actress and making poses as if being photographed.

Dart said in a statement made in 2015 that he had told her she seemed very photogenic and he took some digital photographs of her which were then deleted. She remained seated and clothed throughout.

When she later said she could not afford the fees Dart claimed Miss BC suggested he might care to do a photo-shoot with her modelling various outfits: he said would prefer to be paid.

In another meeting in his office they drank wine and watched clips from a pornography website, then later she sent a text asking when they would be doing a topless photo-shoot, which Dart said had never been discussed. He later threw his phone into a river, something ‘not done with any intention of concealing evidence but in the realisation that I had not been sensible and wanted to terminate all further contact’.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority became involved after complaints by Miss BC to the police, with officers providing recordings of interviews with both she and Dart in January 2014. The SRA wrote to Dart in April 2015 asking him to explain.

The regulator charged Dart with participating in discussions with a vulnerable female client in relation to an inappropriate and improper arrangement for the settlement of a bill. He was also charged with watching pornography in his office with a vulnerable female client.

Dart insisted to the SRA his behaviour was ‘certainly stupid’ but not as bad as alleged.

But the regulator told the tribunal he had known the client was diagnosed as bipolar and suffered from epilepsy. He had also made clear to police officers that she had a recent history of mental health problems. Lawyers for Dart argued that her medical conditions did not necessarily render her vulnerable.

In mitigation, Dart’s representatives said he had continued to practise without any complaint while the investigation was ongoing. He was known to the judge who had issued the search warrant of his offices, and he had to explain the story to people providing testimonials. The local newspaper planned to run the story, after which his ‘humiliation would then be complete’.

Testimonials from other lawyers attested his reputation for hard work and desire to help the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. Even at 64 he wanted to go on working and his commitment to criminal legal aid was ‘steady and continuous’.

The tribunal was told that a striking off would ‘ruin him’ and affect the three members of staff and two consultants working under the firm’s legal aid contract.

But the tribunal found that Dart had continued discussions about an inappropriate arrangement, which he did not attempt to stop even when topless photos were mentioned.

‘[Dart] was completely complicit in the suggestion that activity might escalate, including that there might be inappropriate photographs taken at a venue other than the office and possible sexual activity beyond that,’ said the judgment. ‘The tribunal accepted that this misconduct occurred in a long unblemished career but it was not a one-off but a series of contacts.’

As well as a striking off, Dart was ordered to pay £12,000 SRA costs.