More solicitors than ever accused of misconduct

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The Independent Online

Solicitors are facing disciplinary action for dishonesty and breaches of professional rules in record numbers, a new report shows.

Solicitors are facing disciplinary action for dishonesty and breaches of professional rules in record numbers, a new report shows.

Most of the cases relate to the misuse of client money and action taken after a criminal conviction.

Last year, 73 solicitors were banned from practice and 38 were suspended. Another 72 were fined a total of £200,000. More than 150 other cases have been set for further hearings before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, which produced the report.

A Staffordshire solicitor whose sophisticated scam cost clients nearly £3m was struck off the solicitors' register by the tribunal in July. Michael Archer, 47, had managed to fool accountants, the Law Society and even his book-keeper. He pleaded guilty at Warwickshire Crown Court on 18 February to false accounting and theft.

Another solicitor, who failed to keep proper accounts and lent money to people in breach of his duty escaped being struck in July because he was 87 years old. Noel Brockbank, of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, was instead issued with a severe reprimand by the tribunal and ordered to pay £3,879.84 costs.

The 276 applications for disciplinary action against solicitors or their clerks, published in the tribunal's annual report to April 2000, mirror a record number of complaints made to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS).

The OSS recommends the most serious of these complaints for disciplinary action. It also runs its own investigations, which can lead to an appearance before the tribunal or criminal prosecution.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has given the society, which is responsible for the 80,000 solicitors regulated by the OSS, until the end of the year to sort out its complaints handling system.

If the society fails to meet government targets of dealing with complaints, Lord Irvine has threatened to remove part of its regulatory power.

Michael Napier, the society's new president, said it was time that the worst offenders should pay for their mistakes. The idea that those which "generated a disproportionate amount of complaints" should pay for the cost of dealing with those complaints needed proper consideration, he said.

The society claims that it has made huge strides in addressing its backlog of complaints and is on track to meet the government target.

Mr Napier, addressing an audience of legal executives in Derby, said: "We should recognise explicitly that clients are customers. They want efficient, courteous, prompt service, in a way which is no different to the service they expect from their supermarket, their bank, BT or an airline."

The society issued guidance to its members last month on how to say sorry to disgruntled customers.