An experienced personal injury solicitor who forged his client’s signature on two court documents to progress her case “acted stupidly” and had to be struck off, a tribunal has decided.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said the case of Alastair James McGregor Gilfillan was a “sad” one in which he had made “very grave errors of judgement on one particular file that had been challenging”.
It went on: “He had lost his focus on the key issues and had succumbed to acting inappropriately under pressure. He had had a previously long career with no blemishes but, as a very experienced solicitor, [he] should have known that this was not the way to deal with a problem file.
“It was absolutely sacrosanct that solicitors did not mislead the court in any way. [He] had become careless on two occasions and had acted stupidly. This had eventually had a catastrophic effect on all aspects of his life.”
Though the tribunal was satisfied that the risk of repetition was low and Mr Gilfillan was unlikely to repeat the misconduct, he had acted dishonestly and there were no exceptional circumstances which justified not striking him off.
Born in 1964, Mr Gilfillan qualified in 1997 and at the time worked at Doncaster firm OCL Solicitors. He acted for the claimant in a road traffic claim which was defended over questions about causation.
He was found to have sent a list of documents for standard disclosure in December 2015 to the court and the defendant solicitors which purportedly bore his client’s signature, but which in fact he had signed without his client’s knowledge or consent.
Mr Gilfillan initially denied that he had done so when asked by ‘HF Solicitors’, acting for the defendant’s insurer.
Further, from at least 8 January 2016 to 14 October 2016, he knew, or ought to have known, that his client had no properly arguable basis for recovering all of the £1,917 being claimed for car damage – the client had told him she had been in another accident a month later which caused some of it.
Though he had several opportunities to, Mr Gilfillan did not file a second, corrective witness statement until 26 September 2016 but even then it was still inaccurate. It contained a statement of truth bearing his client’s signature, when the client had neither seen nor approved it.
At the trial on 14 October the client admitted that her first witness statement was misleading and denied having written or signed the second witness statement.
The deputy district judge adjourned the hearing and the claim was then discontinued, with the court ordering the firm to pay the defendant’s £12,845 costs.
The judge said that, had the trial continued, he would have had to make findings of fundamental dishonesty, and that the client had a potential claim against OCL.
Following an investigation by HF Solicitors, OCL accepted there was “a shortcoming as to file handling” but said it did not consider that its conduct, or that of Mr Gilfillan, warranted a report to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, or committal proceedings. HF Solicitors ended up referring it to the regulator.
The SDT found that Mr Gilfillan had acted dishonestly in relation to the signatures, in addition to a host of other rule breaches.
“The tribunal was satisfied that a member of the public would be shocked to learn that a solicitor had signed a document in a client’s name without that client’s knowledge or permission,” it said.
The SDT said: “Whilst the tribunal had some sympathy for the respondent dealing with a client who may been difficult to contact and was not responding to correspondence, this did not mean that he could use the client’s earlier signature on the second witness statement, which he had been waiting for her to sign and return.
“The correct way to proceed would have been either to try even harder to contact the client, or alternatively to have come off the record as acting for her. In any event it should have been made clear to the court and the defendant’s solicitors that the client had not actually signed or approved that statement.”
In mitigation, Mr Gilfillan accused his client of turning against him to get herself out of a difficult position, leaving him facing the loss of his career.
The SDT recorded: “He believed the client had been less than honest and had tried to portray herself as a paragon of virtue and perfection, pointing the finger at her solicitors as an easy way out.
“[He] accepted that he had acted improperly but submitted he had been trying to progress the claim as best he could.
“He stated that he had lost his job, his profession and explained the catastrophic impact this had had on his personal life. He stated that all he had left to hold onto was a semblance of self-respect and a ray of hope that he could find his way through this whole affair and make some sense of it.”
The tribunal accepted that he was simply trying to meet court deadlines and progress the case, but said he made “very grave errors of judgement” in doing so.
“The tribunal accepted [his] assertions that he had never intended to act dishonestly or even thought about dishonesty, indeed this was borne out by the fact that he had not gained anything personally from his conduct.”
But by focusing on criticising the client, the SDT said he “appeared not to fully appreciate his own responsibilities as a solicitor to ensure the case was presented properly”.