FS Legal, a law firm seeking compensation for leaseholders over the ground rent scandal, is threatening a defamation action over a Tweet by one of the volunteer co-founders of the National Leasehold Campaign Facebook group.
Joanne Darbyshire, who is also an LKP trustee, posted her Tweet – now deleted – after FS Legal partner Gareth Fatchett appeared in the lead item of BBCR4’s MoneyBox programme on Saturday October 13.
Presenter Paul Lewis reported that Birmingham-based FS Legal was sending “hundreds of letters to legal firms that did the conveyancing demanding compensation” on the grounds that these properties are now unmortgage-able and difficult to sell.
Although MoneyBox only interviewed Mr Fatchett, several other law firms are also representing leaseholders, or considering doing so – including Simpson Miller, Liver Law and Leasehold Law – and LKP is aware of 17 cases where leaseholders have won successful settlements.
Since December 2017, Mr Fatchett has made repeated overtures to LKP to become involved in the leasehold scandal, proclaiming his professionalism and track record in similar class action cases.
However, Mr Fatchett was fined £2,000 with £9,250 costs by the Solicitors Regulation Authority last April for professional misconduct in misleading a court.
This outcome was reached by SRA decision. Reasons/basis Mr Gareth Ward Fatchett of FS Legal Solicitors LLP, 1 Hagley Court South, The Waterfront, Brierley Hill, West Midlands DY5 1XE agrees to the following outcome of the investigation into his professional conduct. Background As a result of a complaint to the SRA in September 2015, the SRA commenced an investigation.
Following publication of Mrs Darbyshire’s Tweet, Mr Fatchett emailed her:
“We need you to withdraw the statement you have made and to issue an apology to us.
“I can live with you calling us ‘Ambulance Chasers’ and the like, but we cannot have you making statements suggesting we are running a scam and are dishonest.”
Mrs Darbyshire did not name FS Legal in her Tweet, which addressed the general issue aired on the BBC of leaseholders feeling that they had been scammed by lawyers.
LKP has since corresponded with Gareth Fatchett over this issue, as has Sir Peter Bottomley, who has informed FS Legal:
“This is the type of indication of legal activity that should be regarded as unnecessary and probably unjustified.”
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The dealings of both LKP and National Leasehold Campaign Facebook group with FS Legal have been problematic.
On January 22 this year LKP had to ask Mr Fatchett to remove material taken without consent from the LKP website, including the logo of the All Party Parliamentary Group, and republishing it on his law firm’s campaign website. Our view was that this suggested a link between the two organisations.
This material was later taken down by FS Legal.
The National Leasehold Campaign also claim that FS Legal wrongly removed a data set of sites where leaseholders face doubling ground rents, published for the benefit of the members of the closed Facebook group.
Mr Fatchett subsequently apologised for the removal of this material. His access to the Facebook group was ended.
A point raised in Mrs Darbyshire’s Tweet concerned fee arrangements that leaseholders would agree to if they instructed lawyers in professional negligence actions.
In correspondence marked “for publication”, copied to the LKP MP patrons and the BBC, LKP asked Mr Fatchett to supply the All Party Parliamentary Group chairs the terms of business that leaseholders would sign were they to choose FS Legal to represent them.
LKP asked specifically:
“Do you require the leaseholders to pay any fee to FS Legal, or any of the other side’s legal costs in the event of failure? If the application does fail, what mechanism is in place to pay the other side’s costs?”
In addition, LKP asked FS Legal to explain the connection between the firm and PJ Ellis, a Big Brother celebrity who describes himself as a non-practising solicitor. PJ Ellis has contacted individual leaseholders he has encountered on the Facebook group urging them to use FS Legal’s services.
Mr Fatchett declined to address these questions.
He did, however, produce a long statement, that we reproduce in full (below), which also includes suggested wording for a proposed public apology by Mrs Darbyshire.
Dear Mr O’Kelly / Sir Peter,
Tweet published by Jo Darbyshire
Whilst it is welcome that the tweet has been removed. It seems to me that we have a more fundamental issue. This is the third time that NLC members have made statements which are either factually incorrect or imply wrongdoing on the part of my firm. The first instance of this behaviour was the posting of three client reviews on Solicitor.info by Ms Williams, the second was a series of posts on the NLC website by Ms Kendrick, Ms Darbyshire and Ms Kendrick. All posts and statements referred to above have been removed. On all three occasions we have had to address these issues formally. It appears to us that some form of decision has been made by the NLC to seek to damage our reputation on their own site and through Twitter and on a solicitor review website. Our understanding is that due to the relationship between NLC members and Leasehold Law LLP (Louie Burns) any other legal firm is not allowed to be involved. This appears to be the motivation for making negative statements about my firm.
When I originally joined the NLC facebook group, I did so thinking (not unreasonably) that it would help my research and at the same time would give us the opportunity to assist leaseholders. The Facebook group has plenty of information on it, all of which is downloadable. Any member could download the data. I certainly downloaded articles and information. When we started our own website (www.leaseholdactiongroup.co.uk) we added a link to the LKP and the Parliamentary action and added the development site map. LKP is a charity and acts as the secretariat to the APPG and should be visible to members of the public. The development site map from the Facebook group was created on shareable software and clearly designed to be viewed in more than one place. The map link was placed on www.leaseholdactiongroup.co.uk . Following on from this, we received an email from LKP which effectively stated we had stolen their data. We were surprised at the aggressive nature of the correspondence, but took down the links as to not do so would involve us spending more time on the matter than was actually necessary. Sadly, the line taken by the NLC was that we had “stolen” their data. This was both wrong and defamatory. We raised this formally with the NLC and they removed all the posts suggesting their data had been stolen.
The most recent tweet is simply a continuation of the line that my firm is in some way acting dishonestly. We cannot accept this as the publication of each and every negative comment goes to 13,000 people on the Facebook website.
No Win / No Fee Agreement
The suggestion that my firm offering to undertake a “No Win / No Fee” arrangement with claimants is in someway improper, is without basis and wrong, We are content with our arrangements and that they are designed to best enable our clients to seek redress. With respect, the LKP is a charity set up to lobby for leasehold reform. We have no obligation to explain the arrangements we have with our clients or to share our internal confidential documents with you. If our own clients or our regulator asks us, we will be more than happy to explain the position.
RSA [sic. The Solicitors Regulation Authority]
You raise the regulatory settlement agreement with my regulator. I am sure you have taken time to properly read it. If so, you will see that there are no findings of dishonesty or lack of integrity against me. I have no conditions on my practising certificate as either a solicitor or a notary public. Whilst an embarrassment for me personally, it is entirely unrelated minor matter and has no bearing on my firms ability to undertake our leasehold project. To seek to suggest otherwise, or in any way to suggest findings of dishonesty or lack of integrity were present would be taken very seriously.
Whilst, I appreciate that you want to push back, would it not make more sense for us to agree a way forward ? The specific matter in hand is the apology my firm feels it is entitled to. Ms Darbyshire has already removed the tweet after we raised the issue with her. We have repeatedly sought to agree a sensible way to live alongside the NLC. It is inevitable that we will run across each other due to the proximity of our respective briefs. Every approach we have made has been rebuffed or ignored. At outset, I emailed Mr O’Kelly a number of times without any response.
I am not sure what else my firm can do. In the context of the three prior issues, we are left with little option but to seek out firmer assurances. We have asked for an apology and invited you to draft it. In order to assist, I enclose a form or words for use.
“FS Legal Solicitors LLP have contacted me in relation to a tweet dated the 13th October 2018, where I implied that clients of FSL who are involved in the ground rent claims are at risk of being scammed. I accept that this statement is wrong and without basis. I unreservedly apologise to FS Legal Solicitors LLP for the publication of this tweet. FS Legal Solicitors LLP have accepted this apology and consider the matter closed. “
My firm would consider the matter closed if this was tweeted out on Ms Darbyshire’s personal account and placed prominently on the NLC Facebook group site.
As a firm, we really have no desire to put the matter on a more formal footing. We believe we are justified in our actions and we are not in anyway being unreasonable. Our perception is that you simply wish us to ignore any attack on the firm as Ms Darbyshire and her NLC colleagues is excused due to their hard work on the campaign.
If (as we perceive) you wish us to accept the tweet being deleted as the sole course of action, what assurances do you give our firm that their [sic] will be no repeat ? We do not intend to engage into protracted correspondence with you about the matter. The longer the matter goes on, the more damage we suffer by the record not been corrected.
Can we suggest you consider a more sensible way to proceed and return to us by the end of October 2018 ? In that way, you will have time to discuss matters properly amongst yourselves.
I am more than happy to meet you, the NLC or anyone else you feel will allow us to achieve a common sense outcome.
Gareth Fatchett – Solicitor & Notary Public