The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has fined Clifford Chance £50,000 and partner Alex Payanides another £50,000.
The firm and Panayides admitted that they entered into a Conditional Fee Arrangement unlawfully. They also admitted that they failed to disclose to a potential litigation funder of their client, Excalibur Ventures, that a document providing advice to Excalibur was drafted by one of its owners. And they admitted paying money held on behalf of litigation funders other than in accordance with the relevant funding agreements.
RollOnFriday broke the news last week that Panayides, a litigation and arbitration partner in the Magic Circle firm's London office, was due to appear before the SDT.
CC and Panayides earned their £100,000 fine in relation to a catastrophic 2010 claim brought by Excalibur against Texas Keystone Inc and Gulf Keystone Petroleum Limited.
Excalibur, which had no assets, claimed that it was owed rights to develop oil fields in Kurdistan. Under lead partner Panayides, Clifford Chance agreed to act for Excalibur on a CFA, understood to be the firm's first (and now, surely, its last). A group of third party litigation funders gave Excalibur £31.75 million to pursue the matter to trial. Over £14 million of the war chest was paid to Clifford Chance in fees.
But the High Court claim failed on every point. Emphatically. The High Court said Excalibur's case was "essentially speculative and opportunistic" and "based on no sound foundation in fact or law". It said the $1.6 billion quantum of the claim was "grossly exaggerated" and worth $3.3 million at best. The funders were ordered to pay the defendants' £20 million costs. They appealed and lost.
|£50,000. That's, like, 30,000 milkshakes?|
The courts were critical of Clifford Chance, citing a conflict of interest (Panayides' brother and father both worked for companies owned by one of the litigation funders), the high success fee uplift (140%), and Panayides' "aggressive and unacceptable correspondence".
The funders sued Clifford Chance for professional negligence in 2014, blaming Panayides for over-stating the claim's chances of success. The firm settled for an undisclosed amount.
Now, three years later, the regulator has had its say. The SRA found that neither Panayides not Clifford Chance had a conflict of interest. Nor, understandably, did it care about a litigation lawyer sending aggressive letters. In a summary, the SRA said no breaches of the Solicitors' Code were identified "in respect of the respondent's substantive conduct of the litigation" and stated that it "agrees that the admissions and outcome satisfy the public interest having regard to the gravity of the matters alleged". Clifford Chance will be hoping that copping to the charges presented draws a line under the matter, which has been dragging on for seven years, but it's still mighty embarrassing.
A spokesman said, "We take our obligations to our clients and the profession extremely seriously and are committed to upholding the highest standards at all times. We accept the SDT's findings that some aspects of our conduct in this matter did not meet these high standards. The issues referred to the SDT were not prompted by any complaint but had all been identified and self-reported to the SRA by the firm following our own prompt and thorough internal review."
"We are pleased to note that the honesty and integrity of all parties is nowhere in question and that none of the original judicial criticism, which prompted the SRA investigation, is reflected in the SRA's findings."
"While it was found that our systems and controls were appropriate, as a firm we are committed to further developing and promoting market-shaping practices in relation to ethics and professional standards."
CC is the latest City firm to suffer from the regulator's new, bolder stance on fines. In April three Clyde & Co partners were ordered to pay £10,000 each and the firm was also fined £50,000, then a record amount from the SDT. But it was broken weeks later in July when the SDT fined White & Case £250,000 and one of its partners £50,000 for breaching conflict of interest rules. And then in November Locke Lord got whacked with £500,000. £100,000? Come on, CC.