Solicitor who owed barristers £146,000 fails to overturn strike-off

High Court: Challenge failed

A solicitor who admitted owing barristers over £146,000 in unpaid fees has failed to overturn his strike-off at the High Court.

Mr Justice Lane said the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) was entitled to find that Richard Charles Prescott had attempted to mislead the court by denying liability when he was sued for payment.

Mr Prescott, principal of Prescotts in Kidderminster, was struck off and ordered to pay £32,000 in costs at a disciplinary hearing in November last year.

The sole practitioner was found guilty of multiple rule breaches, including acting without integrity in transferring over £14,000 from the estate of his deceased mother to the firm’s client account and later office account without the consent of the other executors.

He chose to challenge only two offences at the High Court – acting dishonestly in failing to pay professional disbursements having received the money to pay them and filing “misleading and disingenuous defences” when sued by barristers.

Counsel for Mr Prescott argued that the two dishonesty offences were “insufficiently pleaded” by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and “lacked specificity”.

Lane J said the “undisputed background” of the case was Mr Prescott’s practice of withholding fees from counsel who were “entitled to be paid from funds received by the firm”.

The judge said the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) investigating officer’s report was not challenged by Mr Prescott, who admitted that “incorrect transfers” from client to office account had caused shortages.

Lane J said the SDT “specifically put” to Mr Prescott that he had a motive for behaving dishonestly.

“The unchallenged evidence before the SDT was that, at the material times, the appellant’s firm was in financial difficulties.

“As we have seen from the case law, although motive is not an essential feature of dishonesty, its presence can, depending on the facts, go to show that dishonesty is proved.”

Lane J said it was “impossible to pass over… [a] frankly remarkable passage” in Mr Prescott’s answer to the second dishonesty allegation at his hearing, in which he claimed that, because he defended claims from barristers as a litigant-in-person, he was not covered by the rule in the SRA’s Code of Conduct 2011 requiring solicitors not to attempt to deceive or mislead the court.

The “only rational inference” to draw from this was that Mr Prescott “did not appear to regard himself as being under an obligation not to deceive, or knowingly or recklessly mislead the court, in connection with the claims brought by those seeking payment from him”.

Lane J said that, while a “high degree of specificity” was required in what was put by the SRA and SDT to the people concerned, “what fairness demands is a fact and context-specific issue”.

He went on: “By not only refusing to pay counsel in the clear knowledge that the money to do so had been received, but also continuing to dispute that monies were owed to counsel, the SDT properly found, to the requisite standard, that such conduct was not only lacking in integrity but dishonest.

“The appellant transferred the money into his office account in order to use it ‘for his own purposes’.”

Lane J concluded that the challenge to the first dishonesty allegation therefore failed.

He said it was a “marked understatement” for the SDT to describe as “unattractive” Mr Prescott’s “attempt to compare himself with a litigant-in-person”, in response to the second dishonesty allegation.

He said the SDT was entitled to find that the solicitor had attempted to mislead the court and therefore been dishonest.

Lane J dismissed Mr Prescott’s appeal.

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