Scots lawyer censured over ‘derogatory and offensive’ emails to former client
A Scots lawyer who became embroiled in a “tense and heated” exchange of emails with a former client in which the solicitor said “what would you expect from a pig but a grunt” has been found guilty of “professional misconduct”.
Ross Porter, 56, was censured by the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) for sending “inappropriate, derogatory and offensive” emails following a fall-out with a client who had recommended the lawyer to his mother in order to pursue an action on her behalf.
‘Indignant, provocative and rude’
The tribunal heard that the respondent was the principal solicitor in the firm Ross Porter in Perth when, in December 2013, he was instructed by the complainer to act in relation to a dispute with a letting agent.
The following month the complainer sent an email to the respondent with details of a case in which the client’s mother wished to instruct the lawyer, and that his mother wished to apply for civil legal aid to pursue the action against a builder for the cost of remedial work, distress and inconvenience.
The respondent submitted the applications for civil advice and assistance in relation to both matters and issued terms of business to the complainer and his mother on 2 March 2014.
But later that month relations between lawyer and client began to turn sour after an exchange of emails on March 25 and 27 in which the respondent advised the complainer that he thought his claim against the letting agent was “vexatious” and “not worth taking forward”.
The tribunal was told that the complainer replied on April 1 by accusing the respondent of failing to provide advice with an appropriate level of detail and failing to communicate effectively and treat him with respect, adding that “some of your communication is…openly indignant, provocative and rude”.
That evening the respondent sent an email to the complainer saying: “In my dealings with you you have struck me as the sort of person who doesn’t like to be told he is wrong. I’m telling you you are wrong…I’ll be writing to SLAB indicating that I am withdrawing and the reasons for that.”
In the interim various emails were also exchanged between the respondent and the complainer’s mother, one of which on March 25 provided an update on progress in the builder dispute and suggested that they might need to instruct another surveyor.
On March 28 the complainer replied by asking the respondent not to contact other surveyors as he would do it himself if necessary.
On the same date the respondent sent a further email to the complainer’s mother explaining that he did not think the instruction from her son was in her “best interests” adding that “I would rather he was not involved in giving me instructions in the future”, before sending an email to the complainer saying that he would no longer take instruction from him on behalf of his mother.
On April 1 the complainer’s mother emailed the respondent saying that she had discussed her case with her son and that she expected the solicitor to communicate with him, following which the complainer also emailed the respondent on the same date saying that his mother signed a mandate so that he could deal with her case.
‘The last vestiges of a fool’
Later that evening the respondent sent another email to the complainer’s mother stating that: “I have formed an opinion of your son from dealings I have had with him in relation to this and other untreated matters… I won’t take instructions from him. I wish to deal with you directly. If that is a problem then feel free to instruct another agent.”
He added that he was happy to continue to act on her behalf if she wished, but said: “Just keep your son out of my way”.
Less than an hour later the respondent also sent an email to the complainer explaining that he would no longer take instructions from him and that he had made this clear to his mother, adding that “you clearly have some issues”.
The following morning the complainer’s mother replied expressing her “surprise” that the respondent would even consider that she would keep her son out of the way, adding that her son had no intention of attempting to instruct the solicitor again because he found the respondent “too distasteful an individual”.
She added that the language used by the respondent was “completely inappropriate”, before concluding: “You do not communicate effectively, however it is your rude, petulant and obnoxious attitude that I will not countenance. You are dismissed with immediate effect.”
A few minutes later on April 2 the complainer wrote to the respondent explaining that he had a first class honours degree and a masters degree in psychology, and suggesting that the solicitor had “anger management issues”.
That afternoon the respondent replied in the following terms: “You may be impressed by your degree, I’m not. And what have you done with your degree, you are in your forties, unemployed, living off the state and have been for some time.
“As a result of the various mental health issues which you clearly have, you are weighed down by the enormous chip on your shoulder. You are obviously unemployable, or lazy, or stupid, probably all three.
“You are a sad and pathetic man. In order to bolster your flagging ego and sense of self worth you are argumentative, arrogant, pedantic and literal, the last vestiges of a fool. I’m glad I won’t have to deal with you further and I pity anyone who does.”
Half-an-hour later the respondent then wrote to the complainer’s mother stating that: “I have never resorted to insults but your son, who obviously wrote your last email, clearly feels the need to do so… It is cowardly and unpleasant to do that… But sure what would you expect from a pig but a grunt. Our business is at an end.”
The complainer then sent a further email to the respondent advising that he would be sending all their email communications to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, which duly referred the complaint to the Law Society of Scotland.
Before the tribunal the fiscal appearing on behalf of the Council of the Law Society said that the respondent had a duty to act with “propriety and integrity” and that he “ought to have behaved more professionally”.
It was submitted that solicitors must observe “high standards” of conduct, but the respondent’s behaviour towards the complainer and his mother constituted “professional misconduct”.
The respondent admitted professional misconduct and in mitigation he accepted that he ought to have “risen above it”, apologising for any offence caused.
He also accepted that the comment about the pig was “ill-advised” and insisted he did not intend to refer to the complainer’s mental health problems, explaining that as a sole practitioner he himself was “under stress” and dealing with a long-term illness.
He said he “snapped” while under “professional and financial stress”, but added that he had made attempts to meet the complainers to explain and apologise.
The tribunal also heard that the complainer had raised an action against the respondent at Perth Sheriff Court, which the defender settled for £3,000.
The respondent asked the tribunal to take into account the fact that the emails were written over a period of less than 24 hours in the context of “tense and heated exchange”.
Mr Porter, who has not worked as a solicitor since 2016, told the tribunal that it was an “isolated incident” and that he was a person of “good character”, adding that he had “no interest” in returning to the profession.
The SSDT concluded that the respondent’s conduct was a “serious and reprehensible departure from the standards of competent and reputable solicitors”.
In a written decision, tribunal vice chair Kenneth Paterson said: “By sending inappropriate, derogatory and offensive emails to clients, the respondent allowed his integrity to be called into question. These comments were capable of bringing the profession into disrepute. The conduct was a serious and reprehensible departure from the standards of competent and reputable solicitors and therefore constituted professional misconduct.”
He added: “The tribunal noted that the professional misconduct took place during a 24-hour period in an otherwise unblemished career. The respondent had demonstrated remorse and insight. He had attempted to minimise the impact on the secondary complainer by offering to meet and apologise. On the scale of solicitors’ wrongdoing, the tribunal considered the misconduct to be at the lower end. Accordingly, it censured the respondent.”
© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2020