Law firm sues ex-client for slander after panel removal

Police: Dispute over comments made at closed meeting

A law firm and its owner are suing a former client for slander and malicious falsehood over comments allegedly made explaining why the firm was removed from its legal panel.

Ron Thompson is director of Yorkshire firm Haven Solicitors, which from 2014 until late 2018 was on the panel of the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), advising on pensions.

According to a ruling on various preliminary issues published yesterday, the PFEW notified Haven in December 2018 of the decision to remove it from the panel due to “concerns about the services provided to our members”.

Mr Thompson tried to get more information from the PFEW and also took it up with the boards of various regional branches that he had worked with.

As a result, some of the boards asked the PFEW for an explanation, and the alleged comments were made at a meeting of branch secretaries addressed by Craig Hewitt, the PFEW’s head of civil claims – he is a police constable, not a lawyer.

Mr Thompson was not present at the meeting, and the PFEW says attendees were expressly told that the information with which they were provided was confidential, and that giving it to Haven and Mr Thompson was a breach of confidence.

The claim was initially based on a single sentence allegedly spoken by Mr Hewitt at the meeting.

The PFEW denies he said it – although admits “aspects of the words complained of” were spoken in answer to questions and comments from the audience – and pleads that Mr Hewitt “read out a long list of very serious substantive criticisms” of the firm’s services which was much more significant than the original allegation.

This comprised 26 items, marked A-Z, ranging from “A. General manner of conducting business (anecdotal)” to “Z. Ethical issues (IOD reviews)” – ‘IOD’ standing for ‘injury on duty’, which is one class of claim in respect of which Haven advised.

One of the most contentious statements, according to the ruling, was that Haven included “unnecessary information” in advices and made them “needlessly long/complicated”.

The list said: “The suspicion is that this is done to make it appear that more work has been done than is actually the case. Unfortunately, it would still be necessary to review the entire letter since, often, funding requests or information relating to the matter would be ‘buried’ in the text.”

The claimants say the natural and ordinary meaning of these words is that there were reasonable grounds to suspect they had tried fraudulently to charge for more work than they had actually done.

At the hearing, the claimants sought to add the 11 most serious elements of this list of criticisms to their particulars of claim – the defendants had agreed to slander but not malicious falsehood – and Richard Spearman QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, granted permission to amend the particulars.

The judge also set a timetable for a hearing of the claimants’ application for an injunction “designed, in substance, to prevent the defendants from interfering with the claimants’ access to witnesses”.

The claimants argue that the defendants have denied them access to witnesses unlawfully, while the defendants say it would be premature at this stage and should only happen once the statements of case are settled and directions for trial given.

The lack of access to witnesses was one of the reasons Mr Spearman gave for rejecting the defendants’ application for a preliminary hearing on whether the words originally complained of were spoken; the other was that, in light of the claim being widened to include the list, it would not achieve much.

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