A solicitor who used and paid a struck-off solicitor in his practice, submitted false costs claims to defendant insurers and was also sanctioned by the Football Association (FA) for his work as a player’s agent, has accepted a £2,000 fine from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
By striking a regulatory settlement agreement, Alan David Middleton, sole equity partner and compliance officer at Liverpool firm Middleton Solicitors, escaped a possible referral to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The SRA found that a struck-off former solicitor, Charles Anthony Darnell, was employed or remunerated by the firm. He provided driving services to the firm but the SRA said he had also conducted work on client files and provided litigation support to clients.
Mr Middleton admitted that he knew Mr Darnell had been struck off, but described him as “a friend of the practice and introducer”, who was good at taking a statement. He also conceded that the firm “probably didn’t have enough people at the time”. He terminated the arrangement between them – which had lasted for five years – in May 2014.
In mitigation, Mr Middleton said he thought he could not employ Mr Darnell to undertake client work and that their arrangement did not fall foul of the section 41(1) of the Solicitors Act 1974 (as amended), the law on employing a struck-off solicitor.
“The agreement with Philips Legal Services [Mr Darnell’s company] was principally for driving and delivery services. Mr Darnell would also point people in the firm’s direction. Mr Darnell, through PLS, provided a litigation support service by helping clients to sort out their files, track down witnesses, organise documentation and prepare summaries and chronologies.
“The service was not originally envisaged as being for providing legal services or in breach of section 41(1).”
Separately, the SRA received complaints from several third-party insurers that Middleton Solicitors had submitted claims for costs on behalf of clients in personal injury matters when they had not been instructed.
The SRA identified five files where Mr Middleton “had failed to exercise due diligence by not verifying information provided to the firm by claims management companies (CMCs) about potential clients before taking action on those case”.
One file, for example, had no evidence of client’s written instructions or that the client had agreed to the firm completing a claim notification form (CNF), or that the client had entered into a conditional fee agreement with the firm or taken out after-the-event insurance, as was stated on the CNF.
The client, it turned out, not been injured and did not want to make a claim.
In mitigation, Mr Middleton maintained that the issues arose because of the firm’s reliance on information supplied by the CMCs. “Mr Middleton had addressed the risk of this occurring in the future through enhanced procedures at the firm. The firm has also ceased working with several CMCs because of these issues.”
Finally in 2015, the FA found that Mr Middleton – who is an authorised football agent – said he acted on his own on the transfer of a player between two Premier League clubs, when in fact he was a front for an unlicensed agent and received £30,000 for his involvement.
An FA Independent Regulatory Commission fined Mr Middleton £30,000, suspended him from agency work for three months, suspended for 18 months, and gave him a warning as to his future conduct.
In mitigation, the SRA recorded, the solicitor said the commission found that he was “negligent in his dealings that gave rise to the respective charges and that there was no intention on the part of Mr Middleton to mislead or misrepresent the true position to the FA either at the time of the transaction or subsequently”.
The final charge by the SRA was that Mr Middleton did not disclose the FA’s finding when he applied to renew his next practising certificate, as he should have done.
In addition to the £2,000 fine – the most the SRA can impose with a referral to a tribunal – Mr Middleton paid £2,500 in costs. The agreement did not say why the SRA considered this the right sanction.