Solicitor rebuked for baseless threat to prosecute law firm

SRA: Solicitor’s conduct was reckless

A solicitor who threatened another law firm with criminal proceedings if it did not settle a negligence claim, when in reality that would not happen, has been rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Peter Vialls, senior partner of Cambridgeshire firm Wilkinson & Butler, also allowed his client to contribute to the contents of the letter.

In a regulatory settlement agreement published yesterday, the SRA said the firm was instructed to act on a negligence claim against the client’s previous solicitors (called ‘the Practice’ by the SRA).

The claim was heard in October 2022 at Cambridge County Court and was dismissed, with the judge finding “no merit whatsoever to the allegations and certainly no basis… to bring…some sort of criminal proceedings”.

In February this year, Mr Vialls wrote to the Practice to say he had submitted an appeal and also that his client had made further allegations of wrongdoing by the Practice during the hearing, and was considering reporting the matter to the police.

“Mr Vialls also wrote that if the Practice made a reasonable settlement offer, then the client would not proceed with further action. If the Practice did not make an offer to settle, and the police did not pursue the matter following a report, the client would bring a private prosecution.”

However, the appeal was dismissed in April.

Mr Vialls admitted that his letter “contained statements and assertions which were not properly arguable” in light of the court ruling.

“In addition, Mr Vialls allowed his client to contribute to the content of the letter he drafted, and make assertions which were not arguable, when he was aware and had advised his client regarding the same.”

This was in breach of paragraph 2.4 of the SRA Code of Conduct, which requires that solicitors “only make assertions or put forward statements, representations or submissions to the court or others which are properly arguable”.

The solicitor also failed to act with act with independence or in the best interests of his client, the agreement said.

In mitigation, the SRA said, Mr Vialls recognised that his conduct “fell short of the required standards, and has shown insight and remorse”.

The regulator said a rebuke was appropriate, given that “Mr Vialls’ conduct has been reckless in terms of failing to balance the duty he has towards his client and his duty to act with independence”.

It went on: “Solicitors strongly asserting a position which has been dismissed by the courts, is likely to damage public confidence in the solicitors’ profession.

“A rebuke is also intended to deter Mr Vialls and others from similar behaviour in the future. Any lesser sanction would not provide a credible deterrent to Mr Vialls and others.”

We reported yesterday that the SRA has referred two cases of abusive litigation conduct to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

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