A self-employed consultant has been struck off after asking a client to pay a £750 bill to him directly and keep it secret from the law firm he was attached to.
Christopher Kenneth Scroggs was also found to have acted for three clients without authorisation, having not put them through the firm’s file opening procedures.
He thought he was nonetheless acting under the banner of the firm, so the decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) should act as a warning to the growing number of solicitors working as consultants on a fee-share basis like he was.
The solicitor was admitted in 1988 and from 2008 to 2018 was a consultant to Bristol firm Cook & Co, now known as Neath Raisbeck Golding Law. He was not authorised as a sole practitioner and so could only operate through the firm.
At the time of the hearing, Mr Scroggs, 60, had not yet taken up a position offered by well-known fee-share firm Spencer West, which was aware of the proceedings.
The SDT heard that Mr Scroggs’ client, ‘AF’, had been billed by the firm, but when he did not pay for two weeks, Mr Scroggs issued his own bill, telling AF he would not have to pay the VAT.
In a text message to AF making the request, he said: “I’ll be shot for asking but here goes anyway”. The following day, he asked AF to discuss it by text only as “my work e-mails are read”.
AF did not pay and instead reported what had happened to the firm, which notified the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Mr Scroggs said the request was due to cash-flow difficulties from helping a close family member who was in very difficult financial circumstances.
The tribunal accepted this and that he did not intend for anyone to lose out – his plan was to pay the firm its 40% share of the fee plus the VAT due, meaning he would receive only what he was entitled to.
“However, the tribunal was profoundly troubled by a solicitor approaching a client of the firm for whom he worked and asking for payment to be made directly. It was at best extremely ill-advised even accepting that the firm would not ultimately lose out financially…
“Probity and transparency in relation to the treatment of fees due from clients was a cornerstone of ethical legal practice. It also went to the heart of a solicitor’s relationship with their employer.”
His conduct lacked integrity and damaged public trust. Further, Mr Scroggs knew his actions were improper and “ordinary decent people would regard the conduct as dishonest”.
Separately, Mr Scroggs admitted acting for three clients on litigation matters without authorisation, for which he was paid £2,450, as he had not gone through the firm’s file-opening procedures, meaning it was not aware he represented them.
The SDT found that he genuinely, if mistakenly, believed that he was still acting under the auspices of the firm.
He explained that these clients “did not wish for their affairs to become common knowledge at the firm” as they were aware of one partner who could be indiscreet about client matters. Mr Scroggs said his clients had “seen client information bandied around” by this partner.
He had known the clients for many years and so would not need to go through the usual checks.
The SDT accepted that the clients were not misled and that Mr Scroggs believed he was acting properly.
“However, proper processes in law firms were vitally important. The firm being unaware of the instructions, and the progress of the matter, ran the very significant risk that the firm’s indemnity insurer would not have covered any loss had anything gone wrong.
“The client was therefore exposed to a potentially very significant risk. The risk management processes of the firm were undermined.” He again lacked integrity and damaged public trust in doing so.
However, the SDT dismissed an allegation that Mr Scroggs had been dishonest in making statements to other law firms that Cook & Co was instructed. His conduct would be seen as “profoundly unprofessional rather than dishonest”.
In mitigation, he accepted the tribunal’s findings and asked it to take into account his 34 years as a solicitor with no previous blemish. When he was dismissed by the firm, he lost shares worth £20,000 and “had already suffered severely for his actions”.
At his age, a suspension or strike-off would effectively end his career, he added.
The SDT said it had “considerable sympathy for the pressures outlined by Mr Scroggs which had led to the finding of dishonesty”. However, they did not amount to exceptional circumstances so as to overcome the presumption of striking off in cases of dishonesty.
“Financial pressures were often acute and could not be described as exceptional. The conduct was not momentary but the result of a decision which was confirmed and pursued the following day.” The other findings represented “serious misconduct” too.
The SDT struck him off but decided not to order costs as his means and immediate income prospects meant there was no “realistic or reasonable prospect of Mr Scroggs being able to make any contribution to the assessed costs in the foreseeable future”.