A barrister who complied with an order from the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to pay compensation to a client only two hours before appearing at a Bar disciplinary tribunal has been fined £2,000.
The tribunal said it was “appalled” by Ian Wheaton’s behaviour in respect of two clients. The compensation he paid “at the eleventh hour” had been outstanding for 18 months in the one case, 12 months in the other.
Mr Wheaton told the tribunal on 1 August 2019 that two hours before it was due to sit, at 7.28am, he had made an electronic transfer of £350 to the first former client, Mr N. He showed counsel for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) a screenshot as evidence of the transaction.
The barrister said that the previous day he had sent a postal order for £800 to the second former client, Ms K.
The tribunal noted that Mr Wheaton earned £5,000 per month in disposable fee income and “could always have made the payments”.
The tribunal said: “If Mr Wheaton had wanted to comply, he could have done so. The means of payment used by Mr Wheaton in the last 48 hours could have been used a long time ago.
“To say that the payments were made at the eleventh hour was an understatement.”
The tribunal described this behaviour as “poor and shoddy conduct” for a barrister of Mr Wheaton’s seniority.
The tribunal heard that Mr Wheaton, based at No.18 Chambers in Southampton, accepted direct access instructions from Mr N in January 2017 to assist in private family proceedings. Mr N wanted to appeal a decision, and an appeal was submitted the following month, but rejected.
Mr N complained that Mr Wheaton had “failed to do as instructed on time”. LeO found poor service and ordered the barrister to pay £350 to Mr N in compensation. Payment was due by 23 January 2018.
The tribunal heard that the case of Ms K ran “in parallel”. Mr Wheaton was instructed to draft amended particulars of claim for a case in the High Court worth around £125,000. After determination of an application to amend, Ms K complained.
“She said she had been charged for a two-hour conference, but it only lasted 15 minutes.”
LeO said Mr Wheaton agreed to pay £500 compensation by 23 January 2018. After Mr Wheaton failed to pay on time, Leo increased the compensation to £600 in a final decision made on 18 June 2018.
At an interim disciplinary hearing in June this year, which Mr Wheaton did not attend, he was found to have committed six offences, three for each former client.
The offences were behaving in a way likely to diminish public trust and confidence, failing to be open and co-operative with regulators and failing to run his practice competently to achieve compliance with legal and regulatory obligations.
However, the tribunal said it wished him to be present to hear the submissions of the BSB on sanction as one option for the tribunal, which took a “dim view of Mr Wheaton’s poor conduct”, was suspension.
The tribunal agreed in June that the hearing on sanction should be adjourned and warned: “It would do Mr Wheaton well to ensure that payments were made before the sanctions hearing.”
At his final hearing last week, the tribunal said the facts of the case “commended themselves” to a suspension.
“Mr Wheaton’s behaviour and appalling disregard for the directions of the Legal Ombudsman suggested a behaviour that the tribunal would not expect of a member of the Bar. Mr Wheaton admitted that his conduct did not look good.”
However, the tribunal referred to guidance on sanctions which stated that when “compliance has been achieved by the date of the tribunal, the starting point should be a low level fine combined with a reprimand/advice as to future conduct”.
While it could be argued that the relevant date was the date of the first tribunal in June 2019, the tribunal said it would not take that view. Mr Wheaton was reprimanded and fined £1,000 and for each former client.