Solicitor failed to tell clients their claims had been struck out

SDT: Strike-off only appropriate sanction

A senior solicitor who misled two clients for three years over the progress of their personal injury claims – when they had actually been struck out – has been struck off.

One of the clients only realised there was a problem when bailiffs were at her door with a demand for unpaid costs.

Lesley Wilkinson, 58, who qualified in 1990, joined Burnley firm Smith Jones (Solicitors) Ltd in 2015 as an assistant solicitor in the personal injury department.

According to a statement of agreed facts and outcome from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, she handled the linked claims of ‘Mrs JH’ and ‘Mrs LB’, which arose from a car accident, against Tesco Underwriting and Aviva.

Both claims were struck out in March 2017 at Burnley County Court, with orders for costs made against each claimant.

An appeal lodged with the court was returned unprocessed due to an “apparent failure” to resolve a query raised by the court on payment of the fee.

Aviva’s costs were then assessed at £8,277 in Mrs JH’s case and £8,028 in Mrs LB’s. The insurer’s solicitors sought payment of them soon after.

However, when Mrs JH telephoned Ms Wilkinson in July 2017 for an update on the case, the solicitor said nothing had happened.

She said the same when Mrs LB contacted her in July 2018. Mrs LB called again the following month after two sheriff officers (Scottish bailiffs) visited her house to hand over a demand to pay the costs owed to Aviva.

Ms Wilkinson claimed not to know the reason for this and, over the next two years, told Mrs LB that she was trying to find out more about the issue and sort it out.

The SRA said: “Instead of being open and frank with Mrs LB, [Ms Wilkinson] continued a façade of being unaware of what had occurred and that this arose due to a failure in others to respond to her communications and attempts to ascertain why sheriffs were attending at Mrs LB’s door.”

Both clients complained to Smith Jones in July 2020, which reported the issue to the SRA.

At the same time, the firm took disciplinary action, which led to Ms Wilkinson receiving a final written warning, to stay on her record for two years, and her employment being changed so she was no longer permitted to manage and run files in her own right. Her salary was also reduced by £5,000.

The firm and its insurers paid the costs owed by the two clients, plus interest, and also paid them compensation of £3,500.

Ms Wilkinson told the SRA that this was “an isolated incident in my career and one which I deeply regret”.

She described 2017 as an “extremely difficult time for both in my personal and professional life”. A heavy caseload meant she fell behind with some matters and “was not as prepared as I ought to have been”.

The insurers alleged fraud on the part of Mrs JH and LB, “which I did not agree with but it made conduct of the matter difficult and there was no cooperative relationship between the lawyers”. She described the strike-out decision as “harsh”.

She went on: “When contacted by LB, I panicked and tried to buy some time to try and sort matters out. I was not thinking straight or acting professionally due to the pressures I was dealing with. When no contact was made, I began to think that maybe that was the end of it.”

The personal problems were redacted from the public ruling but in handing over the notes of its disciplinary hearing to the SRA, the firm – which continued to employ Ms Wilkinson – asked the regulator to “note that this was a particularly sad and difficult case which had to be handled with a degree of sensitivity and compassion”.

Nonetheless, the agreement said that a strike-off was the only appropriate sanction. “Ordinary, decent people” would consider her misleading the clients – which continued over three years – to be dishonest.

Ms Wilkinson also agree to pay costs of £5,000.

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