SRA rebukes lawyers for bankruptcy and costs misconduct

SRA: Regulatory settlement agreements

A solicitor who continued to practise after being made bankrupt and a fee-earner who failed to return disallowed costs to Court of Protection clients have been rebuked for misconduct.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority reached regulatory settlement agreements with both.

Andrew Craig Hutchinson, an assistant solicitor in the criminal law department at Rhyl firm Gamlins Law, was made bankrupt in August 2022 on the petition of HM Revenue & Customs.

A solicitor’s practising certificate (PC) is automatically suspended on bankruptcy, but Mr Hutchinson continued to work for another three months. He did not inform the SRA, which discovered what had happened after a report from the Official Receiver.

In mitigation, the solicitor said he was experiencing significant personal difficulties during the period prior to the order being made, “which resulted in him failing to deal with matters effectively”.

He co-operated with the SRA’s investigation and took prompt steps to lift the suspension. He was issued with a new PC subject to conditions on 30 December 2022. The SRA added: “He has shown insight into and expressed remorse for his failings in the matter.”

The regulator said a rebuke was the appropriate sanction. “The breaches which occurred were of a short duration and there was no loss or lasting significant harm to any clients or third parties. There is a low risk of repetition.”

But “some public sanction” was required to uphold public confidence in the delivery of legal services.”

Bryan Hunt worked for 21 years up to April 2022 as a private client executive at Bradford firm Schofield Sweeney.

He worked on deputyship and Court of Protection matters, which required him to raise regular invoices on the relevant files to reflect the fees being charged by the firm. He was also required to submit these invoices to the Senior Courts Cost Office (SCCO) for assessment annually.

Where the SCCO disallowed any fees charged, he had to ensure these were repaid to the client.

The SRA said that, on five instances across three deputyship files between 2017 and 2021, Mr Hunt raised interim bills which were subsequently reduced by the SCCO.

“A total amount of £59,484.20 was charged in circumstances where the requirement to submit the file for detailed assessment had not taken place,” it went on.

Mr Hunt failed to ensure the disallowed fees were paid back to the client and so was unable to submit final costs certificates to the Office of the Public Guardian.

After the office identified an error with the firm’s billing on one of the files, Mr Hunt gave an undertaking that the excess monies would be paid by 12 April 2021 – but failed to do so.

It was only after another fee-earner looked at the files when Mr Hunt had an extended absence from work in late 2021 that the firm discovered what had happened.

The SRA took into account Mr Hunt’s mitigation that he experienced “a number of difficulties in his personal life which were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic” and shown “insight and remorse”.

In deciding on a rebuke, the SRA said “there has been no lasting significant harm to consumers or third parties as the firm have taken steps to correct the position”, but a sanction was required to uphold public trust and confidence.

Mr Hutchinson agreed to pay costs of £600 and Mr Hunt £300.

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