Lawyers raise fear of libel over complaint: Solicitors accuse critical former client

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The Independent Online
WHEN Richard Bond made a formal complaint about his former solicitor, he found himself being accused of libel by the firm.

Mr Bond, a legal executive from Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, says he was alarmed by the accusation. 'Until my friend calmed me down, I really was upset. I didn't know whether I might have to sell my house if I had to pay damages. I was very frightened.'

Mr Bond instructed the firm, Alexander Harris of Sale, Cheshire, in 1991 over a medical negligence claim, following treatment for back pain. When he became dissatisfied with the way his case was being handled, he contacted the Solicitors Complaints Bureau.

In his correspondence with the SCB, Mr Bond criticised an affidavit sworn by David Harris, a senior partner at the firm. And it was this criticism that the firm later claimed was libellous. In the firm's written response to the SCB's inquiries on Mr Bond's behalf, it claimed that his comments about the affidavit were a 'serious libel' and said it was considering legal action.

Under the Law Society's rules, complaints to the SCB are subject to what is called 'qualified privilege'. This means that the solicitor cannot sue for libel successfully unless he proves that the complainant was being malicious. To issue a writ without alleging malice 'will be treated as prima facie evidence of professional misconduct and dealt with accordingly', says the society's guidance to solicitors.

According to a leading libel solicitor, Roderick Dadak, the test for 'malice' is fairly stringent, and would typically be met only where someone was deliberately lying or being reckless in his allegations.

Veronica Lowe, director of the SCB, told the Independent she could not comment on this particular case. However, she said that in general if a solicitor is unreasonable in alleging libel, he could be disciplined.

She addedthat there had been cases in the past of solicitors threatening libel action to try to persuade a client to withdraw his complaint. 'We are not impressed by it,' she said.

When Mr Bond wrote to the SCB saying he was 'very concerned' about the libel allegation and asking advice, he was told that the bureau could not comment.

'Should (Alexander Harris) take the matter any further, I suggest you take independent legal advice,' he was told.

Alexander Harris is now suing him for its costs, although he is counter-suing for negligence and breach of contract. Mr Bond accuses the firm of adopting the same 'aggressive, litigious approach' with him, as a client, that it would typically use against the opposing party's solicitors.

David Harris, a senior partner at the firm, rejects Mr Bond's criticism of its treatment of him. 'Mr Bond holds himself out as a senior legal executive. As a professional man himself, he knows exactly what he was doing and saying.' Alexander Harris had behaved 'impeccably' throughout, he said.

It appears that the firm does not intend to take legal action over the alleged libel. Mr Harris said: 'I'd say, as senior partner in a practice, that there is virtually no prospect of a small practice wanting to bring libel cases against members of the public.

'However, if a comment of a libellous nature is made against a professional person, it is a right of that person to remind that member of the public what the laws are.'

Mr Bond has now raised the issue of the libel accusation with the SCB, in addition to his original grievances - which he claims have still to be resolved to his satisfaction.