A family lawyer who created an online divorce service did so to avoid regulation and not share the fees generated with his law firm, a tribunal has found in striking him off.
Stephen Anthony Hogan also practised without authorisation or insurance for four years, and without a practising certificate in his final six months.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that, for more than a year, Stephen Anthony Hogan operated his website Divorce Assistant while working as a consultant for virtual firm Setfords.
The SDT said Mr Hogan had created in Divorce Assistant “a vehicle with the specific intention of avoiding compliance, regulation and the requirement to have insurance”.
He diverted leads from Setfords so he did not have to share the fees generated by his cases with the firm. “His motivation was personal financial gain,” it said.
The tribunal said Mr Hogan knew he was crossing the line between what was intended to be a form-filling concept and practising as a solicitor for an unauthorised entity, including attending court on behalf of clients.
“On any analysis of the type of work the respondent undertook as Divorce Assistant, it was obviously operating as a solicitor’s practice, and thus required authorisation.
“The respondent described setting up Divorce Assistant so as to take advantage of what he considered a lacuna in the market for an entity which was providing assistance of such limited scope that it did not need to be authorised.
“That being the case, he would have been aware when Divorce Assistant moved away from that premise and was conducting reserved legal activities.”
The SDT said Mr Hogan described himself as a solicitor on the Divorce Assistant website and referred to his experience as a family lawyer.
Any member of the public reading that website and considering instructing him “would believe that he was a practising solicitor, who practising in compliance with his regulatory obligations”.
The tribunal said it was “of no assistance” to Mr Hogan to state that the website “did not say he was authorised”.
Mr Hogan’s misconduct was “not the result of messy and muddled thinking”. He was “aware of his obligations in all regards, but chose to act in breach of those obligations”.
The SDT heard that the solicitor, admitted in 1997, worked as a consultant solicitor at Setfords, a national network of consultants working remotely, from June 2013 to December 2015.
He started trading as Divorce Assistant in May 2014 from his home address and this continued until May last year. The SDT heard that, during that time, up to 25 clients paid over £60,500 in fees into Mr Hogan’s personal bank account.
The website offered to help clients obtain an uncontested divorce for “only £180” and described Mr Hogan as “a former court clerk” with many years of experience, having “qualified as a solicitor in 1997” and “worked exclusively in the area of family law his entire career”.
On the website, Mr Hogan said that “instructing a solicitor is a very personal matter and particularly at the stressful time of a relationship break-up” and he was “able to advise on all aspects of family law”.
The tribunal heard that, in December 2015, David Rogers, managing director and COLP at Setfords, contacted the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) after receiving a call from a client, who said Mr Hogan had acted for her mother.
Mr Rogers checked the firm’s systems and could not see that Mr Hogan had acted for her since no file had been opened and no money received on account.
Mr Rogers subsequently found out that Mr Hogan had communicated with 10 individuals using the Setfords email address but providing no details to the firm. Further investigation revealed that Mr Hogan had asked these clients to send money to his personal bank account.
Mr Hogan admitted all the allegations against him made by the SRA apart from dishonesty.
They included practising as a solicitor without authorisation, carrying out reserved legal activities while unauthorised, practising without a practising certificate and without insurance, and breaching the accounts rules.
He misled the court by stating he was acting as a solicitor and Divorce Assistant had been instructed in a case when he was not authorised, and misled clients by failing to inform them he was not authorised or they were not being represented by Setfords.
Finding him to have acted dishonestly, the tribunal said: “Members of the public, whilst wanting to obtain good services at a competitive rate, would expect a solicitor who describes himself as such in order to obtain businesses, to be a solicitor capable of acting as such.
“Honest and ordinary people would consider misleading the court and clients, and knowingly acting in breach of regulatory obligations, to be dishonest.”
Mr Hogan told the tribunal that he was “not really the right type of person to be a solicitor” – while he considered himself technically competent, he was “not the type of man who could cope with the day to day organisational politics and pressures that the reality of the profession inflicts upon individuals”.
Mr Hogan was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £39,500.