Two criminal law solicitors who billed the victim of an attack by a psychiatric patient a total of £20,000 for what they described as “administrative services” have been fined by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The tribunal heard that although the solicitors’ actions “did not disrupt” client GH’s medical negligence case, it did mean he was “unable to resolve his position” with the NHS trust as regards costs.
The SDT said Leanne Schrouder, admitted in 2013 and a consultant at Birmingham criminal law specialists Maurice Andrews at the time, “failed to establish the proper basis of her retainer and presented an invoice to her client for sums which were not due”.
Natasha Bournes, then a partner at Maurice Andrews, presented an invoice to Client GH “in circumstances where the work she had invoiced him for had been conducted by her on a pro bono basis”.
Approving an agreed outcome between the two solicitors and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the tribunal heard that Client GH sustained serious injuries in an attack in March 2010, while his attacker was a patient in the care of the mental health services of an NHS trust.
GH launched a clinical negligence action, but there were “procedural difficulties” and a number of different law firms were involved.
Seeking “alternative representation”, GH approached Maurice Andrews in summer 2014. He met Ms Bournes, who told him that the firm did not do personal injury work, but Ms Schrouder would be able to help.
GH said he believed Ms Schrouder was his solicitor, but Ms Schrouder said she thought she was acting “in a personal capacity”, through her unregulated business Apex Legal Services.
She was providing “general administrative services” to him on an ad hoc basis, such as reading correspondence and helping GH to respond.
GH said he had no arrangement with Ms Bournes and thought she was just helped Ms Schrouder.
Ms Bournes filed at court an expert report from an ophthalmologist, along with a schedule of loss, while Ms Schrouder attended and spoke at a court hearing. A further expert report was arranged by Ms Bournes, while Ms Schrouder attended a conference with counsel.
Ms Bournes said she had always intended to assist him without charging.
The involvement of the solicitors in GH’s case came to an end in August 2015. By this time time, GH had paid Ms Schrouder in the region of £4,500, though no receipts or invoices were issued.
GH instructed another solicitor and his case settled in January 2016, with an award of damages and order for costs. At this point the solicitors “submitted invoices which Client GH had never seen before”.
Ms Schrouder submitted three invoices for the £4,500 already paid, plus a larger invoice for £16,400. Ms Bournes submitted five invoices for a total of £3,600, which she said Ms Schrouder had asked for.
GH complained to the SRA, saying he was sad to do so as the solicitors had helped him when nobody else would.
Both solicitors admitted providing legal services to GH without providing him with a client care letter or any information about fees – Ms Schrouder said she did not think she had to as she was operating through Apex and not providing legal services.
The agreement said that, even if they were “merely” providing administrative services, as admitted solicitors the SRA principles and code of conduct applied.
In any case, given the steps they took in the litigation, they provided services “that would ordinarily be provided by solicitors acting in a clinical negligence claim”.
Ms Schrouder admitted taking receipt of sums of money without providing any receipts or invoices, and submitting invoices in or about January 2016 which “inaccurately described the provider of the services as Apex Legal Services”, instead of Ms Schrouder, and inaccurately described the services as ‘file review’ and ‘admin’.
The solicitor admitted that she had claimed payments of sums “which were not due” from GH and to which she was not entitled.
Ms Schrouder denied an allegation by the SRA that she had asked GH to withdraw his complaint. The SRA agreed to withdraw it, because even if it was upheld, it was unlikely to have “any material impact” on the level of Ms Schrouder’s fine.
She also denied allegations of dishonesty, which the SRA agreed to withdraw, on the grounds that it was unlikely to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the invoices were “overstated or exaggerated for financial gain” and Ms Schrouder held a “genuine belief” that she would be able to claim for her time once the case was settled.
Ms Bournes admitted submitting invoices “inaccurately described” as being for ‘administrative services’ and claiming sums which were not due and to which she was not entitled.
She denied an allegation of dishonesty which was withdrawn by the SRA, partly on the grounds that Ms Bournes was told that GH was “grateful for the help that he had received and wanted to make payment”.
The tribunal considered that Ms Schrouder’s misconduct was mitigated by her inexperience and she had shown “insight” into what she had done. Ms Bournes’ culpability was lower and she had an unblemished 20-year career in the profession.
Ms Schrouder was fined £12,500, and Ms Bournes £6,500. The solicitors were each ordered to pay £3,500 in costs.