The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has taken the rare step of dismissing all allegations, including dishonesty, made against a personal injury lawyer.
Vincent Gray, partner at Cheshire firm Dunne & Gray, denied the allegations.
The firm was initially investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) after it applied to transfer around £20,000 in unclaimed credit balances – representing unclaimed damages from untraceable clients – from its client account to the Solicitors Benevolent Association.
The SDT described Mr Gray as “an honest and credible witness who had a heartfelt belief that he had acted in the best interests of his client”.
The tribunal said the solicitor at times “appeared incredulous at the questions being asked”.
The SRA alleged that Mr Gray had caused or allowed proceedings to be issued and settled without instructions.
The regulator relied on five cases where it said proceedings had been issued without instructions.
In three of them, the tribunal found that proceedings had in fact been issued with adequate instructions. In the remaining two, the tribunal “could not be sure that he did not have adequate instructions”.
There were seven cases supposedly supporting the allegation that Mr Gray had settled claims without instructions.
In three of them, it said it could not be sure that he lacked adequate instructions. In another, the tribunal said the SRA had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that this was the case. In a further case, Mr Gray was found to have had adequate instructions.
On the basis of the two remaining cases where the tribunal found that Mr Gray allowed a claim to be settled without instructions, the SDT considered whether, as alleged, he had breached SRA principles 4 (acting in the best interests of clients) and 6 (maintaining public trust in legal services).
In both cases the tribunal found that Mr Gray had “tried to trace the client and used a tracing agent”, which was “precisely what the public would have expected a solicitor to do for their client”. He had not breached either principle.
Mr Gray was also accused by the SRA of causing or allowing false representations to be made to the effect that clients had accepted settlement offers, and of acting dishonestly in doing this.
In two of the seven cases cited by the SRA, the tribunal found that the representations made by Dunne & Gray were neither false nor misleading. In a further three cases the tribunal could not be sure they were false or misleading.
In the remaining two cases, having found that a misleading statement had been made, the SDT could not find beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Gray had “caused or allowed” it to be made.
In one, there was no evidence that he had seen the court order containing the statement, and in the other there was no evidence that he had seen the letter from a case handler.
The tribunal found that since the allegations relating to misleading representations had not been proved, the dishonesty allegation “fell away”.
Although all its allegations were dismissed, the SRA applied for costs of £39,750, as costs do not follow the event in tribunal proceedings.
Barrister Nimi Bruce, counsel for the regulator, argued that “it would have a chilling effect if the applicant was not able to seek costs for allegations that were properly brought even if not proved”.
Gregory Treverton-Jones QC, counsel for Mr Gray, “expressed his surprise that the losing party was applying for costs”, the tribunal recounted.
It said: “There was nothing about the respondent’s conduct of the proceedings that justified a conclusion that he should have to pay the applicant’s costs.
“He had co-operated throughout and had been largely consistent in what he said from the outset of the investigation to the hearing.” The tribunal made no order for costs.
A spokesman for the SRA said: “We will review the detail of the decision and, if appropriate, consider any further steps.”