The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has thrown out charges against a solicitor - after earlier withdrawing its case against his firm - and expressed ‘considerable concern’ at the £160,000 cost of the case.
The tribunal found allegations against solicitor Nicholas Attwell unproven following a four-day hearing last month. A few days earlier the Solicitors Regulation Authority withdrew all allegations against his firm, Ipswich and London practice Attwells Solicitors. The resulting judgment reveals the Solicitors Regulation Authority incurred £85,544 in costs bringing the case, with the respondents having to spend £80,000.
It also reveals that the tribunal took the unusual step of ordering the SRA to pay the firm’s costs in the sum of £14,000.
Attwells had faced a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman from a financier after the collapsed purchase of a hotel. The complaint failed as it was found the financier was not recognised as a client of the firm. The financier, referred to as PB, said a balance of £27,500 was utilised by Attwell without his knowledge or authority. The ledger for the purchase of the hotel recorded five payments for legal fees and other costs, but it subsequently became clear there was a difference in opinion about who the firm was working for – PB or other parties involved in the purchase.
The complaint to the ombudsman failed on the grounds that PB was not a client of the firm.
The tribunal said the case hinged on two directly conflicting accounts, but that while Attwell was considered ‘credible’, the panel could not always rely on the evidence of PB.
The charges having been unproven, both the SRA and the respondents applied for their opposite number to meet their costs.
The tribunal found there were ‘unusual aspects’ of Nicholas Attwell’s conduct and that he had been ’very careless and exposed himself and the firm to immense risk’ through the compilation and record of file notes. It stressed that the lack of any meaningful record of key issues had become central to proceedings, and it also criticised him for ‘poor judgement’.
Gregory Treverton-Jones QC, of Essex Chambers, representing Attwell, said the SRA’s case contained too many allegations and the bundles of supporting documents were hard to navigate. He noted that the SRA had doubled its costs days pior to the hearing by instructing leading counsel following his own instruction in the case.
As the SRA’s case weakened, he argued, so its conduct of the case became more aggressive with Attwell being accused in cross examination of being greedy and helping himself to money.
Treverton-Jones accused the SRA of being ‘vindictive’ in bringing proceedings against Attwell and his firm and simply taking PB at his word.
The tribunal said it was right to bring the case and said there was nothing in the case to suggest proceedings had been ’anything other than honest, reasonable and, until PB changed his evidence, apparently sound’. But it retained ’regret and considerable concern’ at the costs accrued, and noted that the instruction of leading counsel had doubled the SRA’s costs.