A law firm joint owner who overcharged the NHS millions of pounds for clinical negligence costs has been fined £30,000 for misconduct. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that Andrew Good, who had set up Hull firm Rapid Response, instigated a policy where the firm deliberately charged too much for work often carried out by junior members of staff. This was hidden from the rest of the firm to prevent questions from being asked about billing policy.
Costs practices introduced by Good, the tribunal said, were an ‘unmeritorious and unwarranted planned attempt to seek inflated and unjustifiable costs’.
The tribunal heard that Good, who owned a 50% stake in the business he founded in 2003, came to regulators’ attention when concerns were raised in 2013 by the NHS Litigation Authority (now NHS Resolution) about possible overcharging. By that stage, Rapid Response had ceased to exist as an independent entity and the business transferred to another firm.
It emerged in the subsequent investigation that Rapid Response had regularly charged a £400 hourly rate and 100% success fees on clinical negligence cases, but of the £6.5m claimed in costs from 151 cited cases, the firm had recovered less than £1.5m.
Acumension Ltd, which acted for authority, had described the bills invoiced as ‘beyond obscene’ and had informed the firm in October 2013 it was withdrawing all offers of settlement of claims for costs. Of the 151 cases examined, 22 had incurred the £400 hourly rate.
The tribunal heard of several case studies where junior members of staff had worked on claims. Judges had expressed their displeasure at the sums being claimed: in one case District Judge McIlwaine reduced the costs claimed on a £3,000 claim by 91%, saying it was a straightforward case and remarking that the application for a 100% success fee was ‘ambitious’.
The SRA told the tribunal that overcharging was ‘planned, deliberate and conducted on a grand scale, over a long period, and through a large number of cases solely for the purpose of enriching the owners of the firm’.
Good, a solicitor for 20 years, argued that the SRA could not prove it was routine to submit excessive bills, nor that he caused or even knew the bills to be inflated. He said it was ‘perfectly lawful’ and industry practice to fix the success fee at 100%, with no requirement to amend or review success fees with hindsight. He submitted the tribunal could not be sure that any overcharging amounted to misconduct.
The tribunal found he lacked integrity but was not dishonest.
Victoria Fear, a salaried partner and second most senior solicitor after Good at the firm, was reprimanded. Danielle Park, a solicitor at the firm, denied misconduct allegations and was cleared by the tribunal.
The trio must each pay a contribution towards the prosecution costs. The SRA applied for £300,000 costs in total, and these will now be subject to assessment.
In a statement following the judgment's publication, Helen Vernon, chief executive of NHS Resolution, said: 'Excessive and unjustified charging directly reduces the money available for patient care and NHS Resolution will not hesitate to report such cases to the SRA for investigation.'
Andrew Good said: 'I am extremely disappointed in the tribunal's finding, especially in circumstances where a specialist costs judge has made clear that claiming the hourly rates and success fees my firm claimed was not misconduct in his view. Further the tribunal found that there has been no financial loss to any party, including the NHS, that I made no financial gain and that I did not at any time act dishonestly. In fact the tribunal commended me for approving the lowering of the hourly rates after running a test case to try to establish what figures were appropriate. I remain very proud of the work my firm did for clients who had often suffered life changing injuries as a result of NHS negligence.'