A sole practitioner who used client money to pay office expenses after seeing profits dry up has been struck off the roll.
Andrew Philip Thomas, who ran clinical negligence specialist Andrews Solicitors in Bridgend, said his firm started to struggle when legal aid funding was pulled in 2013.
New cases had to be run on a conditional fee agreement or on a fixed fee, and clients were reluctant to pay up-front for disbursement costs.
In late 2014, the software used for time recording and accounts completely crashed and the firm’s IT provider could not recover the information. Client ledger information had to be put back into the system for each case.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that by March 2015 the firm had laid off all staff except for one fee-earner, but complex clinical negligence cases were coming to trial.
In December 2014, the firm received £25,000 interim damages for a client, but only £5,000 was sent to her and the remainder used to pay for office expenses. She had not known at the time Thomas had taken her money, although she did submit evidence to the tribunal in support of him and that he intended to pay the money back.
Thomas, who admitted five allegations, accepted the pressures facing his firm were no different from those facing other small firms.
In mitigation, he argued the money was not spent on the ‘high life or frivolities’ but was put to paying staff for two months and rent for a month.
Thomas regretted his actions, which have had a ‘devastating consequence on his life, his relationship and professional career’.
But he asked to be allowed to practise, as he wanted to act on behalf of clients in some capacity and, at the age of 55, ‘still had 10 years during which he could make a significant contribution’.
The tribunal said Thomas’ firm lacked accounts and went through ‘financial chaos’ over a period of time.
It added: ‘[Thomas] had faced what could almost be described as a perfect storm. He had built up his firm into a particular position and then changes to legal aid had altered his work profile radically and he saw a downturn in work.
‘This combined with a doubling of his rent led to a situation where his firm was under significant financial pressure. This was not unique to this firm but [Thomas] could not cope with the series of problems impacting on his business.
‘He did not approach the bank or take any alternative steps. Instead he took the decision to plunder the client account which can never be acceptable.’
The tribunal said anything other than a strike-off would have a detrimental impact on the public’s confidence in the legal profession and send the wrong message to other solicitors.
As well as being struck off, Thomas was also ordered to pay £11,000 in prosecution costs.