Law Report: Personal complaint made against solicitor barred: Re Solicitors, ex parte Peasegood - Queen's Bench Divisional Court (Lord Justice Stuart-Smith and Mr Justice Judge), 30 April 1993

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The High Court had no jurisdiction to entertain an application by a litigant in person for an order, under sections 50 and 51 of the Solicitors Act 1974, striking off a solicitor for professional misconduct.

The Queen's Bench Divisional Court granted an application by Mrs Sian Mari Meisel and three other solicitors to dismiss, as an abuse of the process of the court, an application by Mrs Hannah Susan Peasegood that their names be struck off the Roll of Solicitors.

Mrs Peasegood appeared in person; Simeon Maskrey (Rees Edwards Maddox, Birmingham) for the solicitors.

LORD JUSTICE STUART-SMITH said the solicitors were in a firm instructed by Mrs Peasegood's husband in connection with the couple's divorce. In 1987, she discovered that none of them had a valid practising certificate from 1 November 1986 to 27 January 1987. This happened because the Law Society failed to send the firm all the relevant forms, and subsequently because of an administrative muddle in the office.

She complained to the Law Society, and the matter was referred to the Adjudication Committee which, on 21 October 1987, gave the solicitors warnings and a rebuke but concluded that it was inappropriate to prosecute the complaint before the Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal.

The solicitors had earlier obtained an injunction to prevent Mrs Peasegood, who thought there was a conspiracy afoot, from coming into their office and harrassing them. They now ceased to act for her husband and the file was transferred to another firm. They thought that was the last of the matter until, in July 1992, the notice of motion in the present proceedings was served on them.

In the meantime, however, Mrs Peasegood had, unsuccessfully, brought proceedings against the 10 officers of the Law Society alleging conspiracy to conceal illegal conduct, fraud, conniving at illegal conduct, perverting the course of justice, obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception and destroying records.

In the present proceedings, Mrs Peasegood made a large number of allegations against the solicitors, including: (a) practising while uncertificated, (b) attempting to recover costs for work done while uncertificated, and (c) behaving in a manner unbefitting solicitors and deceiving the court. The solicitors argued that the court could not entertain an application under sections 50 and 51 unless it was made by counsel. That was undoubtedly the law before and after the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873.

It was thought a right of audience might subsequently have been conferred by Order 5, rule 6 of the Rules of the Supreme Court, which provided that 'any person may begin and carry on proceedings in the High Court. . .in person'.

But that rule, which was first introduced in 1962, did no more than state the practice which had long existed in relation to litigants in person. That practice was still subject to the exception in the case of applications under sections 50 and 51.

The jurisdiction was therefore the same as that before 1873. Application could only be made by counsel, and then only at the court's discretion. The reason this rule applied as much today as it ever did: it was very easy for disgruntled litigants to make complaints, often in lurid terms, against their own or opposite parties' solicitors.

Even if the court had jurisdiction, the discretion should not be exercised save in an exceptional case. In this case, Mrs Peasegood had given no satisfactory explanation of the long delay, from November 1988 to July 1992, before making her application.

In his Lordship's judgment, the solicitors were prejudiced by Mrs Peasegood's delay. They now had to meet allegations, in particular those relating to their conduct of the matrimonial proceedings, when their file no longer existed. They thought the matter long disposed of when Mrs Peasegood's complaint was dismissed by the Adjudication Committee in 1987.

In any case, the grounds put forward by Mrs Peasegood could not possibly justify striking off the solicitors. To justify doing so, the solicitors must have been guilty of 'conduct which would reasonably be regarded as disgraceful or dishonourable by solicitors of good repute': see Myers v Elman (1940) AC 282 at 288.

Failure to renew practising certificates in time could not possibly fall into this category. And even if the solicitors did at one time seek to obtain costs for work done during an uncertificated period, that could not in this case be described as disgraceful or dishonourable conduct. The complaint relating to conduct of the divorce proceedings was also wholly misconceived.