Solicitors sued over client's lost pounds 500,000

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The Independent Online
JOHNNY COLLINS, a pensioner, begins what promises to be a landmark case today when his lawyers issue a writ against the Law Society. His legally aided claim against the Law Society's complaints department, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), is for pounds 100,000 in damages for taking the wrong decision in his case 10 years ago.

According to 68-year-old Mr Collins, of north London: "They have destroyed my life by the way they've carried on, the Law Society and a dishonest solicitor."

Mr Collins' complaint has its origins in the late Eighties when he became involved in a golf-course development in Spain and used a solicitor, John Brebner, now living in Spain. Mr Collins gave Mr Brebner pounds 500,000 to pass on to one of Mr Collins' other two main partners. The money disappeared - and Mr Brebner refused to say where it had gone.

Mr Collins wrote to the Law Society and its complaints department, saying that Mr Brebner had refused to disclose where the money had gone, and that the solicitor had been working not just for him but for another partner in the deal, resulting in a conflict of interest.

Mr Collins' current solicitor, Des Collins (no relation), says of Mr Brebner's refusal to account for the money : "It was a blatant breach of all rules of professional conduct".

But in 1989, when Johnny Collins contacted the Law Society, it did not see things that way. In April 1991, the complaints bureau concluded: "Mr Brebner is not under any professional obligation to provide the information demanded."

After years of pressure from Mr Collins, in 1996 the OSS asked W O Boyes, secretary of the North East London Law Society, to take another look. Mr Boyes concluded: "I agree that it has not been satisfactory." He found "clearly a suspicion of dishonesty", and said that if the complaints bureau had asked to see the file of the case "at an early stage, examination of the file might have been able to establish the relevant facts".

Separately, Johnny Collins sued Mr Brebner in the High Court. In 1998 he won. The judge ruled that Mr Brebner's actions constituted a fraud and awarded Mr Collins pounds 130,000 damages. Mr Brebner is appealing.

The OSS commissioned an independent report on the handling of the case and, in 1996, admitted that Mr Collins' criticism "is borne out by the facts". However, the Law Society has refused to offer Mr Collins compensation. In an almost unique case he is to sue the Law Society.

"I think it is unbelievable that after 10 years the Law Society have refused to offer any compensation whatsoever, despite admitting they got it wrong," Des Collins said yesterday.