Richard Barnett loses appeal against strike-off at High Court

Former Solicitor Richard Barnett has lost his High Court appeal against being struck off the roll by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

The former partner at Merseyside conveyancers Barnett Solicitors had appealed for costs of £30,000 to enable him to pay for counsel, and then a second appeal for an adjournment of this hearing. However both were dismissed by Mr Justice Graham on 28th April.

Richard Barnett had argued that the original Solicitor’s Disciplinary Tribunal was not impartial, that he did not have sufficient time to prepare a defence, he was unable to cross-examine witnesses as he wished, that the tribunal failed to call expert evidence and that he SRA’s evidence was insufficient to justify conclusions.

Mr Justice Graham said he saw nothing in the first four grounds with the fifth being, in the words of Mr Justice Graham, the “only a valid ground of appeal if it justifies a conclusion that the Tribunal’s decision on any particular issue was plainly wrong.”

In his conclusions in these further grounds, Judge Graham said: “There is nothing inherently wrong in that analysis. The ultimate position is that Mr Barnett disagrees with the Panel’s conclusions. But, as noted above, that is no ground of appeal.”

He concluded: “In my judgment, it cannot possibly be said that the decision of the Tribunal was clearly wrong. There was no serious or procedural irregularity. None of the grounds advanced by Mr Barnett, whether in writing or orally, justify the court interfering with the decision of the Tribunal.”

Richard Barnett has subsequently set up a company named “Barnettlegal LLP” with his wife Deborah Barnett as a partner, with a Steven Kovach also added as a partner. The company intends to offer work unregulated by the Legal Services Act.

Mr Barnett was senior partner of Barnett Solicitors, a firm in which he held 98% equity. The SRA’s investigation and the subsequent Tribunal proceedings arose out of the involvement of Mr Barnett and his firm with an investment fund known as “The Axiom Fund” (“Axiom”). Barnett Solicitors received in excess of £4.8 million from Axiom which was used for general practice funding and to invest in litigation in New Zealand. Mr Barnett acted both for Axiom and the Fund’s investment manager (a firm called “Tangerine”) in redrafting the funding documentation. He also acted as a panel manager for other firms who were in receipt of Axiom funds. It was alleged that the receipt of the funds for these purposes was improper and dishonest.

The Tribunal heard nine days of evidence. Witnesses were called by both parties and cross-examined by counsel for the opposing party. Mr Barnett had been represented throughout by counsel of his own choosing, Mr Timothy Nesbitt. Counsel for both parties made detailed written and oral closing submissions. The Tribunal then adjourned over the weekend and until lunchtime of the first day of the following week before giving its decision. It gave reasons for its conclusions some months later in a judgment that ran to 112 pages.

Mr Barnett accepted that in acting for the Fund and for Tangerine and as a panel manager, he placed himself in a position of conflict, or at significant risk of conflict, between his own interests and the interests of his client, and between the interests of his client and his client’s investment manager. He also accepted that he failed to act in the best interests of his client, Axiom. However he denied any dishonesty either in this regard or at all.

The Tribunal found that Mr Barnett’s use of Axiom’s monies for general practice funding was improper and dishonest. They found that he assisted the conduct of Tangerine despite being on notice of the serious risk that the company was acting fraudulently, that he encouraged another solicitor to change information as to that firm’s ability to continue without further funding, that he provided false or misleading information to his insurers and that he gave false or misleading information to the SRA in respect of the use of funds advanced specifically for the purposes of the New Zealand litigation. In respect of each relevant allegation the Tribunal found Mr Barnett to have acted without integrity and dishonestly.

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