A former law firm director misled clients for six weeks about the progress of their case because he was too ‘embarrassed’ to admit he was struggling, a tribunal has heard.
Rodney Etherington, a solicitor for 12 years, admitted acting dishonestly when he wrongly told two estate beneficiaries that he had already made an application to the court. He told them, through emails, a telephone conversation and an instruction to his secretary, that he was waiting for a response from the court, when he knew the application had yet to be made.
The underlying matter was a contentious dispute over the way a mother’s estate assets should be dealt with. Two of her sons had contacted Etherington repeatedly in 2018 asking for updates.
The misconduct came to light when one of the sons contacted someone else directly during Etherington’s absence on holiday.
The solicitor attended a fact-finding meeting with other directors of his firm, Newcastle practice O’Neill Richmonds Law Firm Limited, where he admitted he knew the application had not gone in to the court earlier, and he had hoped he would get the case through given time. He ceased to be a director soon after and left the firm in April this year.
In an agreed outcome made with the SRA, Etherington admitted his misconduct and agreed he should be struck off the roll.
He submitted to the SRA he was a private client lawyer and not a litigation specialist, and was ‘out of his depth’ on this particular case, which was more contentious and difficult than he had experienced before.
He had underestimated the time it would take to prepare and submit the application to the court and felt unable to challenge one of the beneficiaries or admit to him the delays. He found himself ‘embarrassed’ and unable to correct the position, and he made immediate admissions and apologies to his firm when asked about the matter.
In mitigation put forward by Etherington but not agreed by the SRA, he said he had no previous disciplinary matters and had shown insight into the seriousness of his misconduct. He stood to receive no financial gain from his actions, and was acting to ‘buy time’ in an effort to submit the court application as soon as possible.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal accepted the agreed outcome and ordered he be struck off and pay £2,800 costs.