A law firm owner who prioritised bank debts while failing to pay back six-figure sums to the exchequer has been suspended indefinitely.

Leeds-based John Barrie Wilson allowed his firm to build up debts of around £600,000 to HM Revenue & Customs in unpaid VAT, PAYE and National Insurance contributions, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard. 

Another business run by Wilson, LawYours, was served with an immediate demand to pay an outstanding HMRC liability of almost £280,000 in September 2009.

The tribunal heard that Wilson had given a personal guarantee to lender NatWest and preferred to pay debts to the bank. His businesses both enjoyed the benefit of group overdraft and loan facilities from NatWest, secured by cross guarantees.

The tribunal heard that a ‘compensation payment’ was agreed between Wilson’s companies which was effectively a write-down in LawYours’ accounts of the liability of the law firm. LawYours was wound up in June 2010.

The tribunal heard that Wilson effectively avoided personal liability under the personal guarantees. He was disqualified in 2013 for seven years from owning a business for his actions.

The tribunal ruled Wilson’s actions and his subsequent disqualification were likely to diminish trust in the profession, but it rejected an SRA allegation that he lacked integrity. A judgment published this week said the tribunal could not be sure the payments to NatWest demonstrated a lack of integrity, suggesting that Wilson could have been ‘firefighting and trying to keep his business afloat’.

The tribunal also found it proven that Wilson had breached rules in the way he dealt with an award of £800 compensation made by the Legal Complaints Service in 2009 to  former clients. Wilson paid the award from the office account, after earlier transferred the sum from the monies the clients had on account – effectively meaning they were paying their own compensation.

The tribunal said it was satisfied Wilson had planned his conduct and, despite taking professional advice about his firm’s finances, had tried to ‘trade his way out of trouble’.

The judgment said: ‘If [Wilson] was suspended this would provide the public and the reputation of the legal profession with protection from future harm by removing [his] ability to practice. Public confidence demanded no lesser sanction.’

Wilson had previously appeared before the tribunal in 2010 where a number of charges were proven against him and he was fined £25,000.

On this occasion, the tribunal opted to suspend him indefinitely, but it noted Wilson, who is 65, could benefit from retraining so he was no longer a material risk to the public. He was ordered to pay £28,000 in costs.