Fee-earner found in contempt over documents taken from law firm

Email: Fee-earner sent documents onto new work address

A fee-earner who has not complied with a court order to return documents taken from his former law firm has been handed a four-month suspended jail sentence for contempt.

His Honour Judge Stephen Davies, sitting as a High Court judge in Manchester, has given Patrick Maginn 28 days to provide a witness statement that explains what he did with the attachments to 50 emails sent from his Bond Turner account to his personal account last November.

He has also to verify, if this is the case, that he has deleted the documents and destroyed any paper copies and not dealt with them other than to forward them to his work account at another law firm.

Failing that, Bond Turner – the fast-growing Liverpool-headquartered law firm owned by listed Anexo Group – will be able to apply to the court for a warrant of committal.

Mr Maginn began working there as a housing disrepair fee earner in June 2023. He left in November and joined a competitor in the city, McDermott Smith Law.

HHJ Davies recounted that Bond Turner subsequently discovered that, in the days before he left, Mr Maginn sent to his personal account 50 blank emails with attachments that contained “a significant amount of its confidential and proprietary information”.

He then sent over 80% of them on to his new work email. McDermott Smith’s investigations showed he used some of those documents on six files. It summarily dismissed Mr Maginn when it discovered what he had done.

Bond Turner said the majority of the documents contained procedural guidance such as “templates and procedures, documents and training materials”. There were also some client details, including ongoing cases.

Its claim against McDermott Smith has been settled, while the judge said there was no evidence that Mr Maginn has found another job.

“It is, therefore, a matter of speculation as to whether or not he has continued to make use of any information or whether it has been deleted. Presumably one might infer that if he had intended to transfer work on ongoing files to another firm that might be something which might have come to the claimant’s attention.”

Last December, Bond Turner obtained an order, with a penal notice attached, requiring Mr Maginn to deliver up any documents he had taken, along with any devices he used to receive emails, and file an affidavit confirming compliance and what he had done with the documents.

He failed to comply and did not seek to explain why; rather, “the evidence shows that he has been taking steps to ensure that he was not personally served” with the order.

HHJ Davies found the allegations of contempt proved and decided to go ahead with sentencing Mr Maginn in his absence, given his failure to engage with the process.

“All that can be said, in fairness to him on the evidence before him, is that before the proceedings were commenced and the order was made he clearly took some steps to seek to engage.

“In particular he said that the files had been deleted, which has not been shown to be false, and he also made some enquiry as to the cost and practicability of compliance.

“It may very well be that the recognition of what has happened, what the consequences would be and his financial position have together led him to put his head in the sand and seek to avoid dealing with these difficult problems which he has brought on his own head now by his failure to comply.”

The impact on Bond Turner, thanks to its “timely action”, appeared to be limited.

But nonetheless, the judge said, “this is a case where the seriousness of the case means that only a custodial sentence can be justified…

“The court’s authority to make orders which must be complied with in cases such as this depends upon them being treated seriously and people knowing that if they are not treated seriously there will be an appropriate sanction.”

HHJ Davies decided four months’ imprisonment was an appropriate sentence and that it could be suspended “so long as the claimant can have confidence that the defendant has not further misused any restricted information and has deleted the information which he did have”.

If Mr Maginn does not comply with the new order and Bond Turner applies for committal, the case will return to HHJ Davies to consider whether to impose the custodial sentence.

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