In the second decision of its kind in as many weeks, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has failed to prove a practitioner committed misconduct by overcharging a client.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found allegations of overcharging unproven against Somerset practitioner Derwent Campbell following a three-day hearing, concluding that his £45,000 fee for adminstering a £1.2m estate was not unreasonable in the circumstances.
It was the second time in a fortnight that the SRA had failed to secure a case against a solicitor on allegations of overcharging. On the previous occasion the tribunal went so far as to order the SRA pay Nabeel Sheikh’s costs. In Campbell, defence lawyers made similar criticisms of the regulator’s conduct, saying the case had been a ‘shambles’, but the tribunal found it was properly brought and no costs order was necessary.
Campbell, who is 68 this year, was admitted in 1982 and was previously a partner at Somerset firm Mogers Drewett.
The tribunal heard that in August 2015 a client raised allegations about the handling of his late aunt’s affairs, including the claim that the £45,000 fee was excessive.
Campbell, as head of the firm’s private client team, had started acting as executor when the aunt died in 2014 and the firm acted on the probate.
According to the ruling, at the start of the probate matter, Campbell set £45,000 as a fixed fee after discussions with his team and the residuary beneficiary. The tribunal heard an engagement letter sent at the time was defective as it created a legal entitlement to charge on a time basis rather than a fixed fee. The team subsequently billed up to the fixed fee, when in fact the cost of the firm’s time was around £15,000.
The SRA alleged that Campbell decided on the fee not according to the time and resources required but on the size of the potential legacy and how much the residual beneficiary would be willing to pay.
Campbell considered the sum to be fair and reasonable and to have been agreed by the relevant individuals. He accepted the firm had not been entitled to charge a fixed fee, but he had not prepared the engagement letter and did not appreciate it had been mistakenly drafted. He said the £45,000 fee was based on the difficulty of the administration and potential family conflicts.
The tribunal concluded the £45,000 was appropriate given the size of the estate and the circumstances of the administration. It found Campbell set the fee using his professional judgement and experience, and the tribunal said it was unfair to criticise this approach with the benefit of hindsight. The error over the fixed fees issue was accidental, and once the firm became aware of the mistake the estate was refunded.