The High Court has handed a suspended four-month sentence to a solicitor who failed to co-operate with an investigation by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO).
Ruling last month, Mr Justice Wyn Williams only held back from committing Michael Edward French to prison because of his personal mitigation.
The client involved complained to Kent firm Michael French & Booth Hearn over the way it was handling the administration of her mother’s estate on 31 December 2010. She heard nothing, while on 21 February 2011 Mr French was suspended indefinitely by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for unrelated reasons.
After the client referred the matter to LeO, all attempts to contact the firm received no reply, and in July 2011 LeO issued a section 147 notice requiring Mr French to provide specific information. Again he did not respond, even though such default is treated as if it were a contempt of court.
LeO made a conduct complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, but still there were no replies. In October 2011, the SRA intervened in the practice.
Mr French filed an affidavit the day before the hearing and then represented himself in court. The judge recorded that Mr French apologised unreservedly for his conduct, which he acknowledged was totally unacceptable, and offered no excuse for it, “save to suggest that by 2010 in particular, the pressures in his personal and pro
fessional life were such that, to use a colloquialism, he was unable to cope”.
Mr Justice Wyn Williams said: “I say without hesitation that the defendant’s default is such that a sentence of imprisonment would be justified. It is simply not acceptable for a solicitor to behave in the way that Mr French did in this case.
“To repeat, he ignored reasonable requests for information in respect of a perfectly legitimate complaint, then he failed inexcusably to deal with a notice served upon him under statutory provisions when that notice informed him that to fail to respond might constitute a contempt of court.
“Such behaviour by an officer of the court cannot be tolerated by the court. To repeat, in my judgment, a sentence of imprisonment would be justified to bring home to Mr French and to other solicitors who might find themselves in his position that they should not wilfully ignore matters of such importance.”
However, because of the mitigation – including many years of practising “successfully and with propriety as a solicitor”, his age (65) and his continuing personal difficulties – the judge decided to suspend the sentence of four months for a year.
Chief Ombudsman Adam Sampson said: “We regret having to take such measures to resolve cases. Most of the time lawyers do co-operate fully to help us deal with complaints. It’s a shame it had to get to this stage. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that the judge agreed with our view that a lawyer can’t escape his responsibilities.”
Mr French is the second solicitor taken to court for failing to co-operate with LeO; the first received a £5,000 fine  last November.