A solicitor who faked documents and used his own money to pay compensation to clients as he struggled to keep on top of his workload, has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
A sympathetic tribunal said that Paul Andrew Smith’s naivety and inexperience “had been his downfall”.
“He had got himself into difficulties early on in his career and instead of seeking assistance from senior colleagues, he had attempted to deal with the problems on his own using his own money.
“It was quite clear that he had not wanted client to suffer losses by virtue of the payments he had made to them from his own personal funds. Nor had he wanted to cause further difficulties for his employer.”
In five personal injury cases, Mr Smith – who was born in May 1977 and qualified in 2011 – misled his clients into thinking that action had been taken in their cases when in fact he had failed to issue proceedings. He then faked various documents to give the impression that he had, and in two of the cases paid their supposedly agreed damages of £2,250 and £2,500 himself.
The tribunal said Mr Smith described his position at Williamsons, which has four offices in the East Riding of Yorkshire, as “precarious”.
He had been a trainee solicitor from July 2008 to January 2010 and was retained as a paralegal until July 2011. He was then a solicitor employee until August 2015, when he resigned.
The solicitor told the tribunal that he wanted to work in the property department but there were no positions and he instead accepted the paralegal role and then solicitor post in PI instead, even though he had limited experience of the field.
Mr Smith said he had coped until 2014, when a close relative went into hospital, as a result of which he was visiting the hospital every day and getting home late.
As a result, the limitation period on one of the cases expired. “[Mr Smith] had felt his position at the firm was precarious and thought he would lose his job and that would be the end of his career. He accepted now that he should have asked for help at that time…
“[He] felt that he could not tell anyone about the situation. He thought that if he explained he was struggling with his work, he would lose his job and he wanted to stay at the firm as he enjoyed working with the people there.
“He stressed that whilst there were five files which he had “messed up”, there were many others that he had dealt with properly.”
The SDT went on: “In relation to the issue of supervision, [Mr Smith] confirmed matters were regularly discussed at meetings and that he worked very hard but felt that he never seemed to get on top of things.
“He said that as he was inexperienced in personal injury claims, he did not have the confidence to tell clients that their cases were unlikely to be successful. Instead, papers were routinely sent to a barrister and this also required time to draft lengthy and detailed instructions.”
The tribunal heard that he resigned in August 2015 after questions were raised following a routine file audit, “because he believed the firm would dismiss him as soon as they found out what he had done”. He provided the firm with an e-mail sent from a personal account which explained what had occurred.
There was also evidence from another solicitor, Dennis Brewer, who had recently used Mr Smith as a clerk dealing with property matters. “He spoke highly of [Mr Smith] and indicated he would like to engage [his] services at a later date working under strict supervision with the SRA’s permission.
Mr Brewer also suggested that Mr Smith had understated the personal problems he was experiencing at the time.
The SDT concluded that Mr Smith’s conduct had been deliberate and “repeated over a period of time”. While expressing “considerable sympathy” for the solicitor, the tribunal said that given the finding of dishonesty, he had to be struck off. Any lesser sanction “would not be sufficient to ensure public confidence and protect the reputation of the legal profession”.
Unusually, however, it added that there was nothing to stop him applying for restoration to the roll and that in the meantime he would be able to continue in “a clerical role in a legal practice”.