Law Society fails to strike out negligence claim after bogus firm appeared on ‘Find a Solicitor’ database

Case can now go to trial

The Law Society of England and Wales has failed to strike out a negligence claim after a “fraudster” and a bogus law firm appeared on its ‘Find a Solicitor’ (FAS) search function.

The Court of Appeal, upholding an earlier ruling, rejected the Law Society’s application for summary judgment and/or for the claim to be struck out due to what Lord Justice Beatson described as the “fact-sensitive” nature of the case.

Schubert Murphy, a now defunct North London outfit, was in 2010 instructed to act for a purchaser in a property case. The firm was told ‘John Dobbs’, a lawyer at ‘Acorn Solicitors’ in Rotherham, was representing the vendor. In fact, John Dobbs was a fraudster who had stolen the identity of a retired solicitor and Acorn Solicitors was not a legal outfit.

A partner at Schubert Murphy decided to check the FAS database, which enables members of the public to search for the names of solicitors, their qualification dates, their firms, and more. Incredibly the fake details of John Dobbs and his sham outfit were listed. Money was transferred to the fraudster, and Schubert Murphy has now claimed damages for negligence.

Schubert Murphy, which says it’s no longer trading because of the incident, argues that the Law Society owes a duty of care to solicitors and others who use its FAS facility. Furthermore, it claims it was not able to benefit from the Law Society’s compensation fund because the sham solicitor was not an actual solicitor.

Despite Mr Justice Mitting siding with Schubert Murphy at first instance the Law Society appealed, arguing that regulators do not generally owe a duty of care in these scenarios.

Rejecting the appeal, Beatson said that the Law Society had “specifically encouraged” the use of its FAS system and had failed to recommended that users undertake “any other checks”. Beatson, joined by Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherington and Lady Justice Gloster, continued:

By choosing to provide the facility, and in the light of the nature of the facility… I consider that it is arguable that the actions of the Law Society, which has control over the registration of solicitors, created the risk that it would be relied on and the opportunity for fraud.

He continued: “The determination of whether a duty arises in the present circumstances is fact-sensitive. It requires the answers to several questions which cannot be determined without further inquiry into the facts.” These include: whether the relationship between the parties was sufficiently proximate, and the wider purpose and consequences of imposing a duty in these circumstances, or not.

He concludes that a full trial is a “more appropriate forum” for these questions to be considered.

A spokesperson for the Law Society said:

We note the judgment and will be considering it in detail over the coming days. It would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this stage.

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10 Comments

Anonymous

It’s interesting to note that the Law Society Gazette’s website does not allow anyone to comment on this matter.

In the light of this case, the “Find a Solicitor” website now contains one of the longest disclaimers you will ever see:

“Disclaimer

While we try to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in Find a Solicitor, the Law Society cannot accept any liability arising from your reliance upon it, or from the inclusion in it or omission from it of any data whatsoever.

By making Find a Solicitor available to the public, the Law Society gives no representation or advice and makes no warranty whatsoever as to the accuracy of the information provided or in relation to any other matter. You should take appropriate steps to verify independently the accuracy of any information contained in Find a Solicitor. You should not act or omit to act on the basis of information contained in Find a Solicitor without confirming for yourself that an organisation or individual is regulated by the SRA and that they are who they say they are. You should take such legal and/or professional advice as you consider necessary.

Find a Solicitor is not intended to be the way in which the Law Society fulfils its statutory duties under the Solicitors Act 1974 to keep an official register of all solicitors available for inspection by the public.

Find a Solicitor does not contain details of all solicitors. In particular, it does not contain details of solicitors who choose not to be listed, and some solicitors without practising certificates.

To inspect the official register, you should contact the Solicitors Regulation Authority, The Cube, 199 Wharfside Street, Birmingham, B1 1RN. You can call them on 0370 606 2555 (UK) or +44 (0)121 329 6800 (international callers).

Our liability

To the extent permitted by law, The Law Society expressly excludes all conditions, warranties and other terms which might otherwise be implied by statute, common law or the law of equity.

The Law Society expressly disclaims all liability and responsibility for any direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage incurred by any user arising from any reliance placed on materials posted on the Website by any visitor to the Website and by anyone who may be informed of any of their contents, or from the use or inability to use the Website, whether directly or indirectly, resulting from inaccuracies, defects, errors, whether typographical or otherwise, omissions, out of date information or otherwise, even if such loss was reasonably foreseeable and the Law Society had been advised of the possibility of the same. Direct, indirect or consequential loss and damage shall include but not be limited to loss of profits or contracts, loss of income or revenue, loss of business, loss of goodwill, and wasted expenditure or management time.

Nothing in these Conditions of use shall exclude the Law Society’s liability for death or personal injury resulting from its negligence, nor its liability for fraudulent misrepresentation, nor any other liability which cannot be excluded or limited under applicable law.”

(9)(0)
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Joe Y

One glaring question is, how did a phoney solicitor and non-existant firm manage to get on the database? I would have thought the FAS database was connected directly to the membership database?

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Judgment Reader

Read the judgment…. the fraudster had stolen the identity of a retired solicitor, purported to change the retired solicitor’s name by deed poll and used that stolen identity to set up a firm that was registered with the SRA…… the find a solicitor online search accurately reflected the SRA records. The real mind boggling question is therefore how the hell did the fraudster end up on the roll of solicitors as a sole practitioner of a SRA approved firm .

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Anonymous

Although i tend to agree with you, the answer is because the Law Society are humans and susceptible to fraud like the rest of us. The only difference is that when they are caught out or when they breach employment rights of staff they find an excuse for not being liable rather than the witchunt and ensuing PII claim plundering that happens to solicitors. Time and time again Law Soc and SRA hold us accountable to standards they couldnt acheive in a month of Sundays. Never mind eh guys? I expect the increased practising cert fees increase this year will assist in driving up standards and accountability to the profession – no hang on you’ve spent it on Queen’s Counsel avoiding an obvious negligence claim and drafting a disclaimer, great work, youve really got our backs as a representative body. Three cheers for Law Soc.

(6)(0)
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Anonymous

“…witchunt and ensuing PII claim plundering that happens to solicitors.”

Poor, poor sols. They certainly wouldn’t encourage litigation, finger pointing, and demands for compensation from doctors, surveyors, builders, employers, central government, LAs, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, when something goes wrong for their clients. Oh no.

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Anonymous

Don’t forget encouraging litigation against their peers.

“You’ve had one bite of the cherry in your legal dispute and were happy with the service at the time. However, there is a slim chance you could have been entitled to more! Don’t listen to talk of litigation risk; let us try and sue your former legal representative!”

Parasitic. There are a number of unscrupulous vultures circling LinkedIn at present while peddling their lowest common denominator legal services.

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