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Solicitor fined for offensive and “bullying” emails

Emails: Solicitor showed a lack of integrity

A solicitor has been fined for calling a would-be client an “asshole”, “crazy” and “a certifiable nutcase” in correspondence with the man, his partner and the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP).

Tim Bennett took exception after the client, called MP in the ruling of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), complained about him to STEP.

It was STEP that referred his conduct to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), saying that Mr Bennett’s communications with STEP and other parties over a period of two months contained language “which we consider to be wholly inappropriate and insensitive, and with conduct which we consider amount to bullying”.

Mr Bennett was born in 1951 and qualified in 1980, and is a founder and former deputy chairman of STEP.

MP alleged in his complaint that funds were advanced to Mr Bennett, or an entity under his control, to be invested.

MP said he and the solicitor were unable to agree a retainer, and the funds were either returned or sent to beneficiaries.

However, MP claimed that Mr Bennett did not provide a statement of account, despite requests, and he was concerned further monies may be due to him.

Following the complaint, in various emails to the professional standards manager at STEP, MP himself and MP’s partner, Mr Bennett described MP as a “nutter”, “a crazy man”, and lacking mental capacity.

He told the STEP employee that “you have no idea what you are saying”, adding: “England is full of witch hunts, so don’t add STEP to the sad list of witch hunters.”

Another email to STEP described MP as “a total asshole”, while he told MP that “Now I know you are a crazy man with a death wish”.

One email to all of them was in capitals and told MP that he was “a dishonest and disgusting piece of shit” as well as a “manic depressive with mood swings and no real grasp of reality… so enjoy the world of your insanity”.

In an email to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and MP, he said MP was “a certifiable nutcase on strong medication for bipolar mood disorder. Most of what he says is made up of garbled rubbish, emanating from the sewer that resides in his brain”.

In his response to the SRA, Mr Bennett said he was “deeply embarrassed by this” and apologised to all concerned, acknowledging the “rude nature” of what he had said.

However, he also said: “I do object to first STEP, and now the SRA, seemingly taking the side of a criminal money launderer.”

The solicitor claimed he was under “extreme stress” during the time due to medical matters, adding: “I certainly do not poke fun at people with mental illness and I don’t understand how that conclusion can have been drawn.”

He added that STEP did not uphold MP’s complaint, and in his mitigation before the tribunal, described MP as a vexatious litigant. He said the STEP complaints handler’s inexperience compounded the situation.

Mr Bennett also said he was not acting as a solicitor, although his email footer described him as such.

The tribunal decided that STEP and other third parties “had become caught up in a dispute during which [Mr Bennett’s] relationship with MP had become toxic”.

It continued: “However, this was no excuse for the appalling language used by [him] which amounted to far more than mere banter between friends.

“He had made reference to MP’s mental health, which was an attempt to undermine both MP and the complaint MP had made… His indignation [about the complaint] should not have been expressed in the offensive and inappropriate language he had used.”

The tribunal said Mr Bennett’s conduct towards the STEP employee was “completely unacceptable and was clearly aimed at undermining her role”.

It attached little weight to the health issues as it could not ascertain any link between them and the misconduct.

The SDT concluded that Mr Bennett had shown a lack of integrity and a £5,000 fine reflected the seriousness of his misconduct, the harm that had been caused, the limited period over which the emails had been sent, and the low risk of repetition.

It also ordered him to pay costs of £8,000.