A personal injury lawyer who faced “what could almost be described as a perfect storm” of legal aid cuts and a doubling of his rent has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The SDT said Andrew Thomas had built up his personal injury and medical negligence practice into a “particular position”, but changes to legal aid had “altered his work profile radically and he saw a downturn in work”.
The tribunal went on: “This combined with a doubling of his rent led to a situation where his firm was under significant financial pressure. This was not unique to this firm but the respondent could not cope with the series of problems impacting on his business.
“He did not approach the bank or take any alternative steps. Instead he took the decision to plunder client account, which can never be acceptable.”
Delivering its ruling in SRA v Thomas (case no. 11486-2016), the tribunal said Mr Thomas admitted dishonesty in using £20,000 from client account to pay for office expenses.
He also admitted transferring money from client account to office account without sending a bill, failing to keep accounting records properly written up and failing to carry out client account reconciliations.
Mr Thomas, sole principal of Andrews Solicitors in Bridgend, Wales, told the tribunal his firm had suffered a “number of setbacks” and that, following the loss of legal aid for personal injury work, all new cases had to be run on conditional fee agreements, which “had a detrimental effect on cash flow”.
Then, in the autumn of 2014, Mr Thomas said the software the firm used for time recording and accounts “completely crashed and their IT provider, even with specialist assistance” could not recover the information.
“As the firm worked on each case the client ledger information had to be put back onto the system. This was a huge task and caused a great deal of difficulties. By February/March 2015 the firm had to lay off all staff except for one fee-earner.
“The respondent was responsible for keeping the books but did not keep them due to pressure of work. He had had to deal with some very large and complex clinical negligence cases that were coming to trial.”
Mr Thomas accepted that he had used £20,000 from £25,000 interim damages awarded to a Ms AJ for office expenses.
“The respondent had not been thinking correctly. When he had started to show strain his mother had asked how she could help and lent him the money to repay the £20,000.”
During cross-examination Mr Thomas “accepted that the pressures facing his firm were no different from those facing other small firms undertaking the same type of work”, and said he knew he should not have done what he did.
In mitigation, counsel for Mr Thomas said: “The respondent was so sorry for everyone involved and the consequences for them, including clients whose cases he was conducting.
“The area in which he worked was one of the most deprived in the UK and clients, many of whom were in receipt of social welfare, had come to him from all over South Wales.”
The tribunal acknowledged that this was a “sad case” and Mr Thomas had been “extremely frank” and tried to do his best to co-operate with the SRA.
However, the SDT concluded: “Dishonesty had been admitted. The firm lacked accounts and there was financial chaos in the practice over a period of time. The misconduct was deliberate, the respondent took client monies which he knew he was not entitled to take.”
The SDT said the “only appropriate sanction” was to strike off Mr Thomas. He was ordered to pay £11,000 in costs.