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Solicitor cleared of most allegations against him fails in costs bid

SDT: Solicitor failed to have due regard to his obligations

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has rejected a bid by a solicitor cleared of most of the allegations made against him for a contribution to the £143,000 he spent defending himself.

Mark Stephen Francis McDonald, who qualified in 1988, was fined £10,000 for failing to update clients who were facing their house being repossessed, and failed to respond to their requests for information.

In doing so, he failed to act in the best interests of his clients and provide them with a proper standard of service, while his conduct failed to maintain the trust the public placed in him and in the provision of legal services.

Mr McDonald also failed to comply with a production notice issued by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and made a misleading statement in an email to an SRA official. But the tribunal accepted that the solicitor did not know or realise at the time that it was untrue and misleading, and as such his conduct was not dishonest or reckless.

The SDT dismissed five other allegations, such as failing to register a ‘buy back’ option on the property, failing to obtain authority to transfer £37,000 from proceeds of sale to a third party, and breaching an undertaking.

The SRA also withdrew seven allegations, six “due to non-cooperation by witnesses who had previously signed statements confirming willingness to give evidence”, and which were no longer considered to be sustainable. The seventh was withdrawn because no misconduct was actually alleged.

Counsel for Mr McDonald said in mitigation that the solicitor had “lost his employment due to the effect that the allegations would have on a firm’s indemnity insurance if it were to employ the respondent”.

The tribunal concluded that his misconduct “had arisen as a failure by him to have due regard to his obligations to his clients and to his regulator”, but it was also of “relatively brief duration in a previously unblemished career”.

The SDT reduced the fine it would have imposed on him from £15,000 to £10,000 to take into account his limited means.

The SRA sought costs of £42,600, most of which was for its external solicitors Capsticks, which spent 373 hours preparing the case at a notional hourly rate of £92.41.

In turn, Mr McDonald sought a “substantial contribution” to his costs of £143,000 – he said he had spent his inheritance fighting the case and would suffer “financial prejudice” if costs were not awarded.

The tribunal decided that on balance, the public interest in the SRA bringing the proceedings outweighed the financial prejudice suffered by Mr McDonald in defending them and so it was not appropriate to make a costs order in his favour.

But it reduced the SRA’s costs to £25,000 to mark that he had successfully defended a number of the allegations and to take account of his means.