A partner in a large Midlands law firm, who tried to “trick” an elderly farmer out of part of his protected tenancy in the way he sent notices to quit, has been suspended for a year.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that, as Joel Woolf himself admitted, his attempt to “disguise” the service of different notices amounted to a “spoof”, “trick”, “ruse” and “sharp practice”.
The SDT said Mr Woolf’s conduct fell “far short of the standards of integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of a solicitor”.
Mr Woolf was “an expert in his field of agricultural law”, and while he had “followed a practice which he had regarded as commonplace in his field”, he had “sought to take advantage of the tenant, whom he knew to be elderly”.
The SDT heard that the farmer was 82 and farmed in partnership with his wife and son in South Wales on land let to him by the Ministry of Defence in 1971. When a company bought the freehold in June 2020, it instructed Mr Woolf to advise on how it could obtain possession.
Mr Woolf explained that the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 gave “very significant security of tenure” to the tenant but explained that he was working out “how best to try and disguise” a bare notice to quit.
He said “it might be that I serve two notices in each letter in order to try and not make it obvious that one of the notices is a bare notice to quit.
“This is in order to try and spoof the tenant’s advisers into just having the notices delivered by special delivery referred to arbitration and not notice that one of the notices is different.”
Mr Woolf sent two identical letters to the farmer in September 2020, one by first-class post, the other by special delivery.
The posted letter enclosed the bare notice to quit, giving no reason, and a second notice saying part of the land was needed for an abattoir.
The special delivery letter enclosed the second notice together with a third saying part of the land was needed for “agricultural research, education, experiment or demonstration”.
The farmer’s son opened the letter sent by post, scanned the two notices and sent them to his father’s solicitors, JCP.
The son opened the letter sent by special delivery but did not read the notices, believing that like the letters, they were identical.
JCP sent counter-notices to the first two within the deadline. After that passed, Mr Woolf sent all three notices to JCP and made three applications to the Agriculture Land Tribunal for Wales, seeking consent for the operation of the notices to quit.
Mr Woolf warned his client that “the practice of serving the notices in this way is considered sharp” and “they may also try and argue that they were actively misled”.
The tribunal proceedings were stayed as JCP brought a High Court claim, alleging that the notices were invalid because the landlord acted fraudulently.
The company failed to serve a defence in time and the court held that the third notice was invalid.
Following a complaint from JCP to Wright Hassall’s COLP about the notices, Mr Woolf denied wrongdoing. Wright Hassall ceased acting for the company in January 2021.
Mr Woolf denied acting dishonestly. The SDT agreed, on the grounds that, at the time of serving the notices, he genuinely believed he “was merely acting in accordance with established custom and standard practice in his field of agricultural law”.
The SDT also rejected the allegation that the solicitor had been reckless. Indeed, “far from having been reckless”, Mr Woolf “had agonised and taken great care to ensure that the letters were accurate and not, in themselves, misleading”.
Mr Woolf admitted that he had acted with a lack of integrity and failed to uphold public trust. His KC argued that he should be fined or receive a suspended suspension.
The SDT ruled that the solicitor should suspended for 12 months from 7 February 2023, and pay costs of £9,000.