A solicitor who helped a client conceal from her “controlling” husband the full amount of damages she received in settling a personal injury claim has been struck off.
This was despite strong mitigation put forward about the significant psychological difficulties he was having at the time due to he and his wife learning that they would not be having children.
Geoffrey Hart, who qualified in 1998, was a director at Coventry firm Ward & Rider before resigning in 2017 during the disciplinary process relating to the claim.
He accepted his striking-off in an agreed outcome with the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
The agreement explained that he acted for Client A – a family friend of Mr Hart’s wife – in a road traffic accident claim that settled for £55,000. After deduction of costs, she was to receive £48,000.
However, Client A said she would be telling her husband that the claim settled for £30,000 and asked Mr Hart to send a letter confirming this that she could show her husband if needed.
The solicitor agreed to do this and also to making two separate payments of the amount.
The letter said the claim settled for £40,000 and that costs of £10,000 were to be deducted. Two weeks later, Mr Hart prepared further letters saying the money had been paid.
However, once he realised what he had done, Mr Hart pressed the firm to contact Client A to recall the original letter, which it successfully did before it was shown to her husband or anyone else.
In ‘non-agreed mitigation’, Mr Hart said that, though he accepted he acted dishonestly, there were “exceptional personal circumstances” which led to it.
He explained that Client A was aware that, two years earlier, Mr Hart’s wife had miscarried at six months gestation and their son was delivered stillborn. Two trials of IVF then proved unsuccessful.
A few days before Client A asked him to take part in the deception, Mr Hart and his wife had been told that the chances of becoming pregnant were virtually zero, news which had “a significant impact” on him.
When he met with Client A, she initially asked how he and his wife were coping – she knew about their personal situation and told him that she too had suffered a stillbirth.
Client A went on to tell Mr Hart that she wanted to keep some of her own damages because her husband was “controlling and would decide on how the money was spent”.
The mitigation continued: “[Mr Hart] became very emotional after talking about the miscarriage and also wanted to help [Client A] keep some of her money as he felt sorry for her.
“In agreeing to draft the letter setting out the lower settlement amount, [Mr Hart] acted out of character, which was due to his emotional state of mind at the time.”
This was confirmed by a consultant clinical psychologist, who said that, on the balance of probabilities, these and other life events had led to “symptoms of sufficient severity to indicate a formal diagnosis of anxiety and depression”.
She added: “He believes the [mistake] was specifically triggered by the client’s reference to their shared experience of stillbirth, which occurred at a time when he was coming to the realisation that he and his wife would not have a child of their own.
“I believe that this was critical in his loss of focus about how appropriately to manage the client’s legal affairs.”
Separately, Mr Hart also admitted disclosing confidential information about another client to his own wife, a solicitor at another firm, that was included in a document that his wife was to use as a precedent for her own work.
Despite the mitigation, the solicitor accepted the striking-off, with the regulator saying his actions involved “deliberate dishonesty” and that he failed to meet the high standards of the profession.
In agreeing with the outcome, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal noted that Mr Hart did not advance his mitigation as constituting exceptional circumstances for the purposes of deciding sanction.
“The tribunal agreed that strike off was the appropriate sanction in this case,” it said.