Victory against solicitors leads to stalemate for clients

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VICTORY is proving better in principle than practice for a couple who won a pounds 100 repayment of legal fees after a three- year battle over allegations of poor conveyancing advice.

Terry and Fiona Bennett won the refund last September, but the east London firm of solicitors concerned, Murdoch, has so far refused to hand over the money. The firm argues that it is not clear whether it should provide the refund to the couple or to their employer, who actually paid the bill.

Six months on and the Bennetts are now waiting to hear from the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, which made the award, to find out whether they will ever receive it.

Mr Bennett said: 'We are pretty disappointed with the whole saga. Instead of obtaining redress, the way in which we have been treated makes us feel as if we had to run an obstacle course to win our rights.'

The couple, both primary school teachers, first contacted Murdoch after deciding to buy a house in east London in mid- 1990.

Mr Bennett, aged 33, said: 'Fiona and I both did our teacher training in Portsmouth and started looking for jobs. Tower Hamlets council was offering to pay any teachers' removal expenses and legal fees if they bought a home to come and work in the borough.'

After settling on a house in nearby Canning Town and agreeing the pounds 55,000 asking price, the couple hired Murdoch to carry out the conveyancing, for a fee of about pounds 400.

Mr Bennett said: 'There were a number of problems with the firm.

'One was that a member of Murdoch's staff mislaid our pounds 2,750 deposit cheque and completion had to be delayed. We could not proceed for several days.'

The couple decided to take the issue to the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, the profession's arbitration scheme, after discovering that contrary to the estate agent's property particulars, the service charge at the house was not pounds 200 but pounds 600.

'We felt that Murdoch should have checked out these details, and that the company's failure to do so had cost us more than we bargained for,' Mr Bennett said.

The couple's request to the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, made in 1992, was rejected at first after Murdoch submitted a note of a telephone conversation showing that this information had been passed on verbally to the Bennetts.

Mr Bennett appealed, arguing that the Murdoch note was on a piece of paper containing other information that he believed came far later in the conveyancing process. He therefore felt it could not have been a proper record of what had happened.

In September, the appeals committee of the Solicitors Complaints Bureau found: 'The solicitors did not properly advise the complainant as to his liabilities relating to the service and maintenance charges.' A pounds 100 reduction in fees, plus VAT, was awarded.

Yet despite the Solicitors Complaints Bureau's own rules, saying that the findings of the appeal committee are final and must be carried out within 14 days, the Bennetts have not yet received a penny.

Andrew Blatt, a solicitor at Murdoch, said his firm did not accept that it failed to carry out its duties correctly and had submitted proper evidence showing that warnings were given about the service costs.

He added: 'The first decision went in our favour and when Mr Bennett appealed he was given the benefit of the doubt. We are not disputing that repayment must be made and we will abide by the Bureau's decision.'

Mr Blatt said his firm was simply querying to whom the payment should be made. He believed it should be Tower Hamlets, because the council had paid for the conveyancing on the couple's behalf.

But Mr Bennett argued: 'Even if Tower Hamlets eventually met the bill, it only refunded us after we had paid for it first. Whatever arrangement we make with the council is a private matter between us and them, not Murdoch.'

A Tower Hamlets spokesman said: 'Our policy is that any teacher who leaves the borough's employment within one year would be expected to repay all the money. This falls to 50 per cent between one and two years.

'After that, a teacher is under no obligation to repay any money to the council at all.' Mr and Mrs Bennett have now worked for Tower Hamlets for almost four years.

The Solicitors Complaints Bureau said delays had been caused by the lengthy correspondence received from both parties.

A decision would be announced in the next few weeks.

(Photograph omitted)