A solicitor who closed his firm in a chaotic manner after it was devastated by the personal injury reforms – even allowing two clients to attend court without representation – has been suspended by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The SDT heard that Stephen Deakin had closed his firm two months before the contested probate hearing, also leaving 500 client files in a basement to which another tenant in the building had access and “a number of wills in an unsecured drawer”.
He told the tribunal that “ultimate cause of his downfall” was purely financial, caused principally by the 2013 personal injury reforms.
He said the fee reduction hit Deakin & Co in Leigh, Lancashire hard and he could not make ends meet – he had used all his savings to keep his staff employed and to pay the overheads of his practice.
When he had used all his savings, he borrowed money to keep things afloat until eventually a statutory demand was served on him and he was subsequently declared bankrupt. The petitioning creditor was HM Revenue & Customs, to which he owed £60,000 in VAT.
The tribunal recorded that whilst Mr Deakin had attempted to trade himself out of trouble, “ultimately his attempts had been in vain”.
Born in 1967, Mr Deakin was admitted in 1993. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) intervened into his firm in December 2018, five months after Mr Deakin had become bankrupt and closed it.
He admitted failing to inform the SRA about serious financial difficulties prior to becoming bankrupt and failing to conduct an orderly wind-down of his law firm.
The tribunal catalogued the problems the closure caused – one client attended the office not knowing it had closed to recover documents which had not been returned, a barristers’ chambers tried unsuccessfully to contact the office over unpaid fees, while post “had been accumulating”.
“A solicitor with integrity would not have abandoned clients who had a forthcoming hearing or failed to notify clients/creditors of the closure of the firm,” the tribunal found.
SRA intervention agents “struggled to obtain some client files and accounting records”, leading them to issue High Court proceedings against Mr Deakin. Some files were still missing at the time of his disciplinary hearing. He was found to have failed to co-operate with the SRA’s investigations.
In another charge, he admitted failing to perform an undertaking in September 2012 by not reporting to ‘C Solicitors’ on the progress of a personal injury matter over more than four years; the firm had a lien on the file over a fee of just £600.
The tribunal heard that C Solicitors tried to contact Mr Deakin 21 times during a period of more than four years, but he failed to respond to their emails, letters and phone calls. He acted “without moral soundness, rectitude and a steady adherence to an ethical code”, it found.
In all his offences, he admitted acting with a lack of integrity.
In mitigation, Mr Deakin said: “The truth is the ignominy of this will stay with me to my dying day. Bearing these considerations in mind, whatever order the tribunal makes is unlikely to render the current situation worse, from my point of view… I am genuinely and desperately sorry for what has happened.”
Deciding on sanction, the SDT said that while the PI reforms “may have impacted” on Deakin & Co, there was “no real reason” why he did not reply to C Solicitors.
The solicitor should have realised that “things were spiralling out of control” and contacted the SRA, rather than making a “number of disastrous decisions”.
He had allowed his firm to close in a “disorderly and chaotic manner” and a number of client files were still missing.
A one-year suspension would “reflect the seriousness” of his conduct. “This would be sufficient to protect the public and mark the harm to the reputation of the legal profession.”
The SDT imposed conditions on his practising certificate at the end of that time preventing him from practising as a sole practitioner, freelance solicitor or solicitor in an unregulated firm.
He was also preventing from being a COLP or COFA.