Solicitor struck off for “recreating” letters about costs budget

A law firm partner has been struck off for “recreating” correspondence – while pretending they were copies – to support an application for relief from sanctions over missing a deadline to file a costs budget.

Angelina Mary Rigby was a partner and head of the clinical negligence department at Geldards, based in its Cardiff office, until she left in 2017. In the case under scrutiny, she was acting in a claim over the death of a patient at a hospital represented by Weightmans.

According to the ruling of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), the firm reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that a case management conference was listed at Cardiff County Court on 1 August 2017, requiring the costs budget to be filed and served by 11 July. An external costs draftsman prepared the budget, which was filed and served late, necessitating an application for relief from sanctions.

Ms Rigby said in the application, backed by a statement of truth, that it had been filed and served by DX on 30 June but not received at Weightmans’ office.

But Geldards considered this to be “anomalous” because its records indicated that the file was not sent to the draftsman before 14 July and that the budget was last modified on 16 July, while the only evidence that it had been sent on 30 June were letters that the system said had actually been created on 14 July and modified on 17 July.

There was evidence before the tribunal about how ‘dummy’ files were created when the original file was sent off to external draftsmen and that, with the firm running at least three case management systems at the time, there had been scope for error.

In her evidence, Ms Rigby insisted that she held a genuine, if possibly mistaken, belief that the budget had been filed and served on 30 June, and said there was no conclusive proof to suggest otherwise.

She said she had no “active memory” of the events, but said she had left her files in good order before going away on holiday for a week on 1 July. The budget was only sent by hard copy in mid-July because Weightmans had said it had not received the email of 30 June.

Ms Rigby admitted having letters recreated for the file after the date she thought they had been sent – as the originals could not be found – saying “was her intention that the file should reflect what she believed had been the correct position i.e. that the costs budget and letters and had been prepared on 30 June 2017”. While denying that she was trying to mislead anyone, she accepted that this had been the wrong thing to do.

The SDT rejected the charge that Ms Rigby caused the budget to be backdated, criticising the SRA’s preparation of the case and “significant evidential gaps”. The investigator failed to call various potentially important witnesses – including the draftsman, whose evidence may have been “definitive” – and had relied too much on Geldards’ internal investigation “at the expense of making his own independent and deeper enquiries”.

It added: “When set against the identified deficiencies in the [SRA’s] evidence, [Ms Rigby’s] explanation did not appear to be inherently implausible. The tribunal found [her] to be a credible witness who was thorough and meticulous and appeared to be very knowledgeable of court procedure.”

The evidence showed that the firm’s filing system had been “one of potential fallibility and one in which documents, including the costs budget, may have gone astray”.

However, Ms Rigby admitted causing backdated letters on 17 July to be sent to both the court and Weightmans so as to make it appear that they had been sent on 30 June.

The SDT said she did so in the belief that the budget had been prepared and served by then, but were not ‘true copies’. This showed a lack of integrity, it ruled, but was not dishonest given Ms Rigby’s state of mind: “The tribunal considered that solicitors should not send out letters which are recreated and purport to be a letter from the date stated as this was a practice which was bound to lead to misunderstanding and could also be very misleading…

“The ethical standards of the solicitor’s profession require that any document emanating from a solicitor’s office should be strictly accurate in all regards and should not contain any statements which are known by the author to be untrue or misleading.”

On the same basis, the SDT found that Ms Rigby had filed an application with the county court which contained misleading statements as to the date of creation of the letters. This showed a lack of integrity, breached the requirement to behave in a way which maintained the trust placed by the public in her and in the provision of legal services, and was also dishonest.

The SDT said: “[Ms Rigby] had signed a declaration of truth stating that the attached letters were copies of the originals however by attaching letters which had been recreated after the event [she] had presented misleading documents to the court which had the potential to mislead a judge and the defendant. These were actions which [she] should have known would be considered dishonest by ordinary decent people.”

Deciding sanction, the tribunal said Ms Rigby’s motivation in indicating to the court that the letters were copies of the lost originals rather than recreations was “to enhance the prospect of the court granting her client relief from sanction” (which it did). As “a very experienced solicitor [she] should have known better”.

At the same time, it recognised that this was a single episode “in an otherwise unblemished record” and that Ms Rigby had produced positive testimonials which spoke about her professionalism and integrity.

When there is a finding of dishonesty, the SDT will strike off a solicitor unless there are exceptional circumstances why it should not. It noted that Ms Rigby had the chance to set matters right in a later statement to the court, but did not. “The tribunal also noted that [she] had never entirely accepted that she had been responsible for the preparation of the recreated letters and that had sought to transfer the blame to the firm’s secretaries.”

In all, the SDT concluded, striking her off was the “appropriate sanction”.

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Costs News
Published date
23 Jan 2020

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