It has emerged that a personal injury solicitor from Hull who fabricated legal documents and paid clients with his own money, was struck off the Roll of Solicitors just before Christmas.
Paul Andrew Smith admitted misleading five clients on the progress of their claim between June 2013 and July 2014 during which he fabricated documents and made payments worth almost £5,000 from his own bank account in order to verify untrue statements made by him. He was also found to have fabricated a letter of instruction to a costs company and failed to issue proceeding on behalf of his clients.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal said on 22 December 2016 that the breaches he made of the SRA Code of Conduct were serious enough for him to be struck off the Roll of Solicitors, in order to maintain public confidence in the reputation of the profession.
Smith, who who was admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in 2011 and worked for Williamsons Solicitors until he resigned in August 2015, had told the Tribunal that he had worked in the firm’s property department for two years before moving to the personal injury department. He stated that he had only undertaken personal injury work in the final six months of his training contract and that at the end of that training contract there were no solicitor positions available in the property department. He had instead been offered a position as a paralegal working in the personal injury department with a caseload of 70-80 cases.
He was eventually taken on as a solicitor by which time his caseload increased to 170 files. He managed to keep on top of the caseload despite his lack of experience until a close relative became ill and was admitted to hospital in 2014. At this point, his troubles with some cases began.
Smith accepted that he should have sought help from his superiors at the firm, but thought at the time that if he explained he was struggling with his work, thenhe would lose his job. He said that he wanted to stay at the firm as he enjoyed working with the people there. He stressed that whilst there were five files which he had “messed up”, there were many others that he had dealt with properly.
The Tribunal concluded that Smith had “acted very naïvely and his inexperience had been his downfall”.
“It was quite clear that he had not wanted client to suffer losses by virtue of the payments he had made to them from his own personal funds,” said Ashok Ghosh, the Tribunal’s chair.
“Nor had he wanted to cause further difficulties for his employer by virtue of his email dated 5 August 2015 which was effectively a “handover” concerning all his files.
“The Tribunal carefully considered the various sanctions available but concluded that in view of the finding of dishonesty, which was very serious misconduct, it was not sufficient to impose either a Reprimand or a fine. The Tribunal also considered that a Restriction Order would not be appropriate or sufficient in this case taking into account the nature of the Respondent’s conduct. It was difficult to formulate workable conditions which would address the issue of dishonesty.”
After ordering his removal from the Roll of Solicitors, the the Tribunal told Smith that in due course he could apply for restoration to the Roll and that in the meantime he would be able to work in a clerical role in a legal practice.
In a statement made to The Law Society Gazette, Jim Suthers, director and head of personal injury at Williamsons, said: “Mr Smith was employed by the firm for nine years as a paralegal, a trainee solicitor and then as a qualified solicitor, specialising in personal injuries claims for over five years post qualification.
“Throughout this period Mr Smith had daily contact with a senior supervisor and he ran a standard PI case load under supervision.
“Although the general standard of Mr Smith’s work was considered to be very good, unfortunately on a small handful of cases he made mistakes regarding the limitation period, which he then deliberately concealed from his supervisor and created false paperwork to avoid detection and to override the firm’s case management system.
“Once Mr Smith’s actions were discovered Williamsons contacted those clients affected and ensured that the initial mistake was remedied and clients suitably compensated. In accordance with professional standards, the matter was then reported to the SRA.”