Ashley Wilson vs Ashley Wilson
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has fined a solicitor for secretly working with the other side against his own firm in a contentious property transaction.
John Wright was one of three partners at London firm Ashley Wilson when the firm was acting for the sellers of a property valued at £1.8m.
Under the memorandum of sale, Wright was listed as acting for the buyers, and it was noted that he had a close friendship with them.
However, it was agreed that Ashley Wilson would only act for the sellers, and not both sides, due to the potential conflict of interest.
The buyers instructed another firm, NC Morris, to act on the transaction. However, unbeknown to Ashley Wilson, Wright provided instructions on the matter to the other firm.
After contracts were exchanged in April 2016, but two days prior to completion, NC Morris sent Ashley Wilson a letter claiming that the selling agent had mis-described the property, which had caused the buyer to offer too much.
Ashley Wilson rejected the argument, the buyers failed to complete on time, and the sellers served a notice to complete.
Wright secretly assisted NC Morris with the preparation of a pre-action protocol letter it sent to Ashley Wilson, which sought damages of £589k on the basis of alleged misrepresentation of the property (and the difference between the agreed price and the actual value).
The tribunal heard that Wright told the buyers' solicitor to be "more aggressive" in the pre-action letter to his own firm, and suggested that they should "go hard" with a claim for damages against the sellers. He also attended conferences with counsel.
The sale of the property eventually went ahead, although the buyer did so without prejudice to a possible claim. However, the matter did not proceed to litigation.
Wright left Ashley Wilson in 2020, but a former colleague found his file for the matter in the office and, after giving it a read, the firm reported him to the SRA.
Wright admitted that his conduct "fell below the high standards of a solicitor in practice." However, he also claimed it was "regrettable" that the firm had decided to act for the sellers, given that his colleagues knew of his close relationship with the buyers. He said it would have been "more prudent to advise them to seek alternative representation." He also argued that the allegations of mis-description were "well founded."
The tribunal said that Wright was motivated "to facilitate the purchase of the property and attempt to reduce the price for his own and the purchasers' benefit, to the detriment of and in conflict with" his own firm's client.
The SDT also said that Wright's "misconduct was planned and in direct contradiction to the agreement" with Ashley Wilson "not to act for the purchaser."
The tribunal noted that in mitigation it was an isolated incident and agreed that a fine was an appropriate sanction. The panel approved an agreement between the SRA and Wright that he be fined £32,000 and pay £15,600 in costs.