Criminal solicitor fined £40k for pro bono work in family dispute

SDT: Significant harm to the profession

A criminal solicitor who helped out a friend in a family law dispute pro bono has been fined £40,000 for how he conducted the case, which “detrimentally impacted” all those involved.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said the profession’s reputation was damaged by James Brookes acting beyond his professional competence.

Mr Brookes, who qualified in 2008, was at the time an associate in the criminal law department of Iilford, Essex firm MetroLaw Solicitors, which had no involvement in the work he did for three months for a woman he described as a friend.

According to an agreed statement of facts and outcome presented to the SDT, he began acting pro bono for her in a long-running child arrangement dispute that had been transferred to the High Court. He went on the court record.

The mother was subject to a number of prohibited steps orders, which among other things prevented her from making contact with the children’s school without prior permission and from visiting the father’s home, where the children lived with his new wife (called the father’s partner in the ruling).

Mr Brookes went to the father’s house five times – driven each time by the mother – to serve papers and/or deliver items to the children.

One was a pre-action letter on the father’s partner about suing her for defamation; another was to serve notice of an out-of-time application for a judicial review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute the father in relation to allegations by the mother that he had assaulted her in 2005.

On the final occasion, which came after the father had told him not to come to the house again, the mother, a friend of hers and Mr Brookes began shouting at the father, with the solicitor calling him a “bald wally”.

In a subsequent email, he accused the father of having beaten his children and the mother, and having a “propensity for violence”. He said that calling the father a wally was “restrained”.

Mr Brookes admitted that both the visits and emails he sent were inappropriate.

He also delivered to the children’s school a ‘without notice’ court order requiring it to disclose a multi-agency referral form. However, no order had actually been made by the court.

Separately, the father’s partner applied to join the proceedings so that her parental responsibility for the children could be formally recognised.

The tribunal heard that Mr Brookes emailed her to ask that she “desist from involving yourself in the case”.

When she then emailed him and others a notice of the hearing, he said he had previously told her not to contact him and, having nonetheless done so, she would be responsible for his fee note of £750.

He also sought £1,000 compensation as she had “propagated my email address to third parties”.

In relation to both the school and the partner, Mr Brookes admitted that he had taken advantage of them. He also admitted recklessness in relation to the school.

“Given the staff were lay persons and were unlikely to have any legal training, there was a risk that the order could be viewed as a genuine court order that had been granted and required compliance.

“[He] did not make it clear that the order had not been made and as a result the school could have disclosed the items sought, which may have put them in breach of GDPR.”

The SRA decided to drop a charge that he had been dishonest in the school visit, however.

Mr Brookes claimed he had told the school that he was actually on his way to file the application at court; the SRA said that, in the absence of a witness statement from the deputy headmistress who had been involved, it was unable to prove the allegation.

In non-agreed mitigation, Mr Brookes said he believed the mother to have been the subject of longstanding physical and emotional abuse by the father, and that she was vulnerable.

He said he felt sorry for her and that “his initial approach was to simply guide her informally before he reluctantly agreed to go on the record”.

Mr Brookes said the mother was an “extremely difficult client to deal with”, while the father, as a litigant in person, was “challenging”, as was acting in an area of law he was unfamiliar with.

In explaining why the fine was appropriate, the SRA said Mr Brookes accepted he “got too close” to the mother, “which may have clouded his judgement in the manner in which he progressed the case”.

The father told the SRA how the solicitor’s actions “raised the anxiety and stress levels of already vulnerable people”.

Mr Brookes admitted that he had shown a lack of integrity and failed to uphold the rule of law.

In approving the fine, the SDT said Mr Brookes’ misconduct “detrimentally impacted the mother, the father, the father’s partner and ultimately the children”.

“He further caused significant harm to the reputation of the profession, which was severely undermined by solicitors offering their services in areas of law beyond their practice and expertise.”

He also “took unfair advantage by serving a without notice court order on the school when no order had been made and by seeking remuneration from the father’s partner in circumstances where there was no legal basis to do so”.

Mr Brookes had also “demonstrated limited insight, given the late acceptance of and admissions to the allegations”.

The fine was “appropriate, proportionate and necessary to meet the overarching public interest”.

Mr Brookes also agreed to pay costs of £10,000.

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