A chartered legal executive who made an “implied threat” of criminal proceedings in a bid to stop a witness testifying against her client has been banned from working for solicitors’ firms.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Gillian Margaret Walker wrote to the witness referring to potential criminal proceedings for benefit fraud and warning her to think “very carefully” before giving evidence.
The SDT said Ms Walker, based at Opes Law in Manchester, was representing GW, who was bringing a holiday sickness claim for gastric illness and an ear infection, allegedly contracted in Tunisia, against a tour operator represented by leading defendant firm Kennedys.
Kennedys obtained a statement from KR, who had been GW’s girlfriend and had gone on holiday with him, saying that GW did not fall ill as alleged. Since the statement was served out of time, Kennedys applied for KR to give oral evidence.
The SDT heard that Ms Walker wrote to KR in May 2017 and said: “We have reason to believe you have acted dishonestly or deliberately to claim benefits to which you were not entitled and as such you will be aware benefit fraud is a criminal offence…
“We trust you will consider matters very carefully in view of the allegation made against you.”
Kennedys complained and Ms Walker apologised, saying “no such threat was intended” and that the concern was whether “there was a motive behind the statement, which would in in turn question [KR’s] credibility”. She told the SDT that GW claimed KR was lying.
Kennedys reported her to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) the following day.
The tribunal said Ms Walker failed to provide any evidence of the alleged benefit fraud and later that year encouraged her client to report KR for benefit fraud, to make her “think twice” about testifying against him.
GW eventually transferred his case to another firm in order to retain instructed counsel, who had said she would otherwise have to withdraw from the case because the letter to KR had caused a conflict between the firm and GW.
The SDT found that Ms Walker had lacked integrity in seeking to prevent the court from hearing evidence.
“The tribunal determined that the respondent’s ‘passion’ in the defence of her client had crossed the line into misconduct. Her actions were planned and considered.”
John William Duncombe, former sole director of Opes Law, was suspended by the SDT last August for failing to ensure that holiday sickness clients referred by introducers had instructed the firm or knew claims were being pursued on their behalf.
Ms Walker, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, was the fee-earner working at the Opes Law office in Manchester “on a day-to-day basis”, the tribunal said.
But, between April 2016 and May 2017, she became a manager and then an owner of Opes Law without approval from the SRA.
In a further offence, Ms Walker signed or allowed to be signed eight parental indemnity forms in two holiday sickness claims, which were then sent to solicitors for her client’s insurers, which “were misleading in that they purported to accept settlement [on behalf of children] where no agreement had been reached between the parties”.
The tribunal said she had not attempted to mislead the defendant, but “had not exercised appropriate supervision over the case”, in which an administrative assistant had also been involved.
The tribunal also found that she had failed to properly inform clients of fee-sharing arrangements with introducers.
Ms Walker denied all the allegations against her and said in mitigation that she was currently working as consultant for a law firm, certifying documents and assisting in bankruptcy matters.
She argued that the imposition of a banning order under section 43 of the Solicitors Act 1974 would be “disproportionate” and mean she was no longer able to work.
Nevertheless, the SDT imposed a section 43 order, preventing any law firm from employing or remunerating her without the permission of the SRA. Ms Walker was ordered to pay £15,000 in costs.