The High Court has rejected an appeal by Richard Barnett, senior partner of collapsed conveyancing firm Barnetts, against his striking-off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Dismissing the appeal, Mr Justice Garnham said he could see “no flaw whatsoever” in the SDT’s conclusion that Mr Barnett, who was struck off in January this year, had been dishonest after taking money from the controversial Axiom Legal Financing Fund.
The judge said: “In my judgment, it cannot possibly be said that the decision of the tribunal was clearly wrong. There was no serious or procedural irregularity. None of the grounds advanced by Mr Barnett, whether in writing or orally, justify the court interfering with the decision of the SDT.”
Garnham J rejected an initial application by Mr Barnett to use £30,000 of the £115,000 he had paid the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) as an interim costs payment, to fund an advocate at the High Court hearing.
The judge said the High Court had “no power” to make such an order, and also refused the solicitor’s application for an adjournment.
Delivering judgment in Barnett v SRA  EWHC 1160 (Admin), Garnham J said Mr Barnett represented himself in court “with great charm and no little skill”.
The court heard that Mr Barnett’s tribunal proceedings arose out of his involvement with the Axiom investment fund, and that he received over £4.8m from the fund, which he used for general practice funding and investing in litigation in New Zealand.
“Mr Barnett acted both for Axiom and the fund’s investment manager (a firm called ‘Tangerine’) in redrafting the funding documentation. He also acted as a panel manager for other firms who were in receipt of Axiom funds. It was alleged that the receipt of the funds for these purposes was improper and dishonest.”
Mr Barnett accepted that he failed to act in the best interests of Axiom, his client, but “denied any dishonesty either in this regard or at all”.
The judge said Mr Barnett argued that the SDT was not impartial, that he lacked time to prepare his defence, was unable to cross-examine or call witnesses as he wanted and that the tribunal failed to call expert evidence. In addition, the former senior partner said the evidence relied on by the SRA was “insufficient to justify the conclusions” reached by the SDT.
However, Garnham J said there was “absolutely no evidence of bias” by the tribunal, actual or apparent, and rejected the “somewhat half-hearted” submission that the tribunal had not given Barnett enough time or facilities to prepare his defence.
Garnham J said Mr Barnett called two witnesses for the tribunal, one of whom gave evidence, while the other decided not to as he was under investigation by the SRA.
The judge said it was “no part” of the tribunal’s functions to call expert evidence, which was a matter for the parties and Mr Barnett made no application to call any.
Garnham J concluded that it was “entirely reasonable” for the tribunal to conclude that Mr Barnett failed to carry out “any proper enquiries” to satisfy himself that the payments by Axiom “did not involve fraudulent activity by the investment manager”.
The judge went on: “He could not simply sit back and rely on the assumed honesty of the fund manager. Nor could he rely on the advice he had received from Baker Tilly once he was on notice that there were reasons to doubt the honesty of those involved in the management of the fund.
“The tribunal gave entirely adequate consideration to what must have been Mr Barnett’s state of mind, sufficient to enable them to conclude that he was acting dishonestly.”
Earlier this month we reported that two solicitors accused of misusing £573,000 lent to their law firm by the Axiom fund were cleared by the SDT – in part because they relied on assurances given to them by Mr Barnett.