Two law firms have been referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority over their alleged conduct during a failed personal injury claim by 16,626 people living near a huge industrial fire.

Mr Justice Jay heard 20 test cases last month in the High Court following group litigation over the 2011 incident at the Sonae chipboard-plant fire in Kirkby, Merseyside. Claimants sought compensation for breathing problems, eye and skin irritation and in some cases, headaches.

In Saunderson & Ors v Sonae Industria (UK) Ltd, the judge dismissed all the claims and found in favour of the defendant after citing delays in bringing claims and an absence of any contemporaneous evidence.

He said claimants were asked a series of leading questions in standard-form questionnaires, with the responses ‘inaccurate and exaggerated, calling into question the objectivity and integrity of the whole process’. The judge also noted that a set-up of pop-up shops and cold calling to attract potential claimants did not inspire ‘any degree of confidence’.

The judgment will be referred to the SRA after Jay criticised the conduct of two firms in particular.

In 2013, Liverpool-based firm GT Law wrote a ‘final chaser’ letter to Francis Glascott, a 69-year-old who lived 2.1km from the Sonae plant, telling him to append a statement of truth to his questionnaire immediately.

He was told that if he failed to comply, there could be costs sanctions against him personally.

Glascott subsequently told international firm Clyde & Co, which acted for the defendant, that he had been ‘cold-called’ on his doorstep by a young man and said the fire had not affected him and that his breathing problems were due to long-term smoking.

Patrick White, a non-solicitor working under the direction of his principals, denied that he was treating Glascott as a ‘cash cow’ and denied cold-calling the claimant.

But the judge noted ‘obvious errors and inconsistencies’ in the signed statement of truth and said he was not satisfied it was Glascott’s.

Directing that the judgment be sent to the SRA, Jay added that the claim ‘not merely leaves an unpleasant miasma of concern and dubiety in relation to Mr Glascott’s case, it has the potential to infect the integrity of GT Law’s processes overall, and other claims’. The Gazette has approached the firm for a response.

The second practice to be referred is Lancashire firm Walter Barr, which represented Steven Woolvine, a 21-year-old living 1.65km from the site.

Woolvine confirmed on oath that he had not signed or completed the submitted statement of truth. Jay concluded that ‘Walter Barr, or their agents, have forged Mr Woolvine’s signature’.

The judge added: ‘This is a serious matter, and I direct that a copy of his judgment be sent to the SRA for investigation of this issue.’

Gill Walker, a partner at the firm, told the Liverpool Echo there were ‘no foundations’ for the allegation.

Jay concluded that lay evidence viewed as a whole was ‘vague, imprecise, sometimes inconsistent’ and he called for lessons to be learned from the litigation.

In particular, he said the claimants’ legal team should have worked out the science at a much earlier stage and investigated whether the case had merits.

‘Instead, at all material times, the claimants’ legal team appear to have wanted to make a virtue out of uncertainty – perhaps because they clung to the notion that the litigation would settle. 

‘Alternatively, they believed that the judge would not be that interested in the science, and/or they placed undue faith on the likely cogency of the lay evidence.’