A personal injury solicitor who put his relationship with work referrers ahead of his duties to the clients they passed on to him has been struck off.
Mark Pearson Ford was also found guilty of several accounts rules breaches, and misleading both his professional indemnity insurer and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
He was a sole practitioner in Bolton who was born in 1963 and qualified in 1988, and worked exclusively on personal injury claims arising from road traffic accidents.
Ford Legal was heavily reliant on referrals. Its accounts showed that in the two years prior to the referral fee ban becoming law on 1 April 2013, it paid out £475,000 to referrers.
Striking him off, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Mr Ford had placed “his desire to retain his source of referred work above his duties to his clients, and to that extent, he was motivated by personal financial gain.
“His actions were not spontaneous, but were his chosen method of running his accounts, and the relationship between himself, his clients and those who referred work to him”.
Charging the solicitor with allowing his independence to be compromised and failing to provide a proper service to his firm’s clients, the SRA highlighted one occasion when Mr Ford paid damages due to a client direct to the referrer, rather than the client, without authority.
He also sometimes took instructions from the referrer without consent from the client – in some cases there was only evidence of telephone contact with the referrer and none with the client.
In other instances clients had entered into agreements with referrers to deduct funds from damages – payments Mr Ford made in cash on occasion – and the solicitor did not advise his clients as to the agreement or the deduction. He also did not advise on the settlement offers that were accepted.
Though he did not take part in the case before the SDT, Mr Ford had earlier told the SRA that “in the absence of any complaints from clients or evidence that settlements were somehow compromised to the clients’ ultimate prejudice (save for the [accounts rules] breaches), I deny that I failed to act with integrity or that I failed to provide a proper standard of service to the firm’s clients in the way described by the [SRA].”
He initially accepted that the way in which the work was referred reduced the firm’s level of independence, but later denied it.
The SDT found: “Despite [Mr Ford’s] later denial, the tribunal agreed with his initial admission, and found beyond reasonable doubt, that in accepting instructions in the way that he did, without advising the clients as to their rights and entitlements, [his] independence was compromised… [His] retraction was simply not sustainable on the facts and the evidence.”
It continued: “The tribunal did not accept that the signing of the agreements with the referrer’ pre-retainer extinguished the respondent’s duty to advise his clients in that regard.
“Despite his clients’ apparent refusal of independent legal advice (as evidenced in the signed agreements), it was incumbent upon the respondent to advise his clients to seek independent legal advice on the issue of the administration fee, particularly as that fee may not have been in clients’ best interests.
“The respondent’s duties were even more heightened in the circumstances, as the payment was being made directly by the respondent from clients’ damages.”
The SDT found that “no solicitor acting with integrity would pay away client monies without the written authority of a client”, nor would they take instructions from a referrer instead of from their client.
“This was even more so the case when there was a clear potential for conflict; it may well be in the referrers interests to settle the claim; that did not mean that it was necessarily in the client’s best interests.
“Further, and extraordinarily, the respondent had paid the full amount of client damages to a referrer and not to the client”. This put clients’ money “at substantial risk”.
“The tribunal found that the respondent’s conduct in relation to his dealings with referrers and clients fell woefully below the standards of integrity expected of a solicitor.”
The accounts rules breaches were that Mr Ford allowed there to be client account shortages and did not remedy them promptly, did not maintain accurate accounting records, and retained client monies without proper reason.
He was also found to have mislead his indemnity insurer by not disclosing on his renewal form that the firm was under SRA investigation and then that he had been referred to the tribunal, and misled the SRA as well in what he told investigators about his dealings with the insurer. This was found to have been dishonest.
The final finding was that he had withheld information from the SRA by not disclosing that during the course of its investigation he had sold his work in progress, some 450 files, to another firm for £50,000 – indeed, he told the regulator he had not done so. This was also dishonest, the tribunal said.
He was also ordered to pay £75,000 in costs.