Suspension for barrister who lied to client over binned files

Lever-arch files: Barrister could not find client’s documents

A direct access barrister who lied to a client over files that were accidentally destroyed by his chambers has been suspended for six months by a Bar disciplinary tribunal.

The tribunal said that while Stephen Simon Nicholas Taylor “may have panicked in the heat of the moment when telling the lie”, it was concerned by the way “he ‘sat’ on the lie” for three months before telling the client the files no longer existed.

“Mr Taylor repeatedly stated in evidence that the client’s case was hopeless. However, the effect of the disposal of the documents was that his client was unable to take matters further with the claim. The client could not seek a second opinion as to the merits.”

Mr Taylor, called in 2002, was instructed in May 2022 to advise ‘Mr S’ about potential repayment of “a significant amount” of business rates, which had been subject of a court order and which Mr S and his father sought to set aside.

Following an initial conference for which he charged £500, the barrister was asked to consider “a significant amount of further documentation collated by Mr S and/or his relatives with a view to assessing the potential merits of the claim”. Mr S paid an agreed fee of £2,000 plus VAT for this.

There was a follow-up conference that August, which Mr S attended remotely with a representative, Mr K, there in person. Mr Taylor “did not have any case papers to hand at the time”, though he assured the tribunal he had read them.

At the conference, he advised Mr S that there was a very limited prospect of successfully pursuing a case. Mr S asked for the return of the documents, which were contained in two lever arch files.

Mr Taylor went to retrieve them but could not find the files. He told the client that they were likely to be at his home.

The tribunal commented: “In fact, when he said this, Mr Taylor knew it was a lie because he had at no time taken the files home and had kept them at all times in chambers, whether close to his pigeonhole or elsewhere”.

Mr Taylor “ultimately concluded the files must have inadvertently been disposed of within chambers owing to their proximity to the confidential waste shelf near the pigeonholes”.

However, he did not tell the client until December 2022, when he formally apologised and Mr S complained.

The tribunal found that the barrister had acted without honesty and integrity by “knowingly” misleading his client.

The tribunal said it was “prepared to accept that the initial lie was a fleeting lapse of judgement in circumstances in which Mr Taylor could not readily find the papers in chambers”.

He “seemed to lack any insight into the consequences of the loss of the documents and the impact on his client of being told three months later that documents that the client thought might justify a claim were no longer in existence”.

However, the barrister admitted the misconduct at a “reasonably early opportunity” and apologised to the client. The misconduct was “unlikely to be repeated”, the tribunal said.

The panel said it was “prepared to believe that Mr Taylor is essentially an honest and honourable individual who takes seriously the distinction between being truthful and untruthful in all aspects of his daily life, including his professional life”.

But it was “troubled by Mr Taylor’s apparent failure to grasp the impact of his action from the wider perspective of public trust and confidence in the profession”.

Nonetheless, disbarment would be disproportionate in the context of his practice over the last 20 years, “and the fact that this was a one-off, albeit very misguided, incident which does not justify the most extreme sanction in this case”.

Mr Taylor was suspended for six months – which the tribunal described as “an enforced period of reflection” – required to attend at least a day of in-person public access training and ordered to pay costs of £2,670.

A Bar Standards Board spokesman said: “The public should be able to expect barristers to behave in a trustworthy and reliable manner. Losing client documents and not being candid regarding their whereabouts is not only a serious disservice to the client but also risks undermining public confidence in the profession. The tribunal’s sanction reflects this.”

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