A firm and its solicitor have been fined a total of £35,000 after disclosing a woman’s new address to her ex-husband, who was subject to a restraining order.
The woman was a client of the conveyancing department of south Wales firm Spicketts Battrick who had given specific instructions not to disclose the address of the property she was purchasing.
Her former husband was also a client of the firm in respect of child contact and divorce proceedings. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard its assistant solicitor Stephen Andrew Alexander had admitted disclosing the address of the property being purchased to the husband, referred to as Mr VM.
The firm admitted failing to ensure that sufficient barriers were put in place to protect the woman’s confidential information.
Alexander, 50, had been instructed by Mr VM in January 2012 in respect of access to a child due to be born to his estranged wife, referred to as Ms SH. She was represented by separate solicitors in the matrimonial issues.
The previous November, VM had been convicted of assaulting his wife and was made subject of a seven-year restraining order and served a month in prison. The tribunal heard Alexander was aware of both the restraining order and conviction.
In March 2012, SH obtained a quote from the conveyancing department and had been adamant she was going to use the firm. The senior partner decided the firm could handle both matters as they would be conducted by different fee earners in different offices, and she purchased a property in January 2013.
Despite assurances of confidentiality, the tribunal heard that Spicketts Battrick failed to implement a ‘Chinese wall’ to protect her information or to ensure restricted access to the client matter files.
In February 2013, Alexander disclosed the address of SH’s new property without her knowledge or permission.
The matter was investigated by the Legal Ombudsman which ordered the firm to pay for an alarm system and service charge for the duration of the restraining order. It had to pay £500 compensation.
In mitigation, Alexander said he thought he was acting in his client’s best interests and he believed the address would be disclosed during divorce proceedings. He saw it as his ‘absolute duty’ to his client not to withhold information.
He did not act maliciously or dishonestly and was confused about what to do. He accepted it was a gross error of judgement which he deeply regrets. It was the first such error in a 25-year career and the potential consequences had caused him significant distress and regret.
The firm admitted acting improperly, had reprimanded Alexander and paid compensation to SH. It told the tribunal: ‘This is a matter we are embarrassed by and ashamed of. We deeply regret the distress caused to [SH].’
In agreement with the SRA, Alexander was fined £15,000 and the firm fined £20,000. They will jointly pay £7,000 costs.