A solicitor who instructed a process server who was also the father of her child – then denied to her firm that she knew him – has been struck off the roll.
Karen Nicholson was with Essex firm Levy & Co when she was asked outright by her managers if she saw process server Will Bilotta outside of work. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that Nicholson said she had never met Bilotta socially, but less than three weeks after this meeting she gave birth to her child, fathered by Bilotta.
The tribunal heard that Nicholson also arranged for another process server, Mark Harrison, to work on six family cases while she was with her previous firm, East Anglian practice Jackamans Solicitors. Harrison was the father of two of Nicholson’s older children and was not based locally.
This was in breach of Legal Aid Agency guidance which stated that charges for disbursement work should be reasonable and involve the instruction of a local provider. Jackamans ended up suffering losses of more than £2,000 after the LAA reduced invoices for process server work.
In total, allegations against Nicholson spanned six years while she was working with three different firms – all of which the tribunal found proved.
She submitted inaccurate expense claims while at Levy & Co and after moving onto Suffolk firm Steed and Steed, she conducted reserved legal activities through an unauthorised company called UK Family Law Group, which was owned by Bilotta. Investigators identified five clients who had received invoices from this company for legal work, ranging from £600 to £5,280.
In one of these cases Nicholson told her client, who had been referred by a domestic abuse charity, that she would not qualify for legal aid and so would have to pay a £600 fee upfront. This client eventually contacted the LAA herself and was told there was no record of any application being made on her behalf.
The tribunal further found that Nicholson caused or allowed false and/or misleading CVs to be submitted to potential employers, which had inaccurate details about her past jobs.
Nicholson, a solicitor since 2011, did not appear at her four-day hearing and was not represented. In written submissions, she said a key aspect of her defence to the majority of the allegations was the nature of her relationship with Bilotta. She submitted he had been ‘relentless’ about her offering more support to his process server business and she supported him financially. She described examples of his controlling and paranoid behaviour which extended to driving her to and from work and even taking her to a court hearing in York. She insisted that colleagues knew of her relationship with Bilotta and she denied failing to disclose it.
She claimed to have been put under pressure to find work for UK Family Law Group and denied deliberately submitting inaccurate expense claims or putting out false information on her CV.
The tribunal concluded that Nicholson was motivated by a desire to help her partners financially and put work their way. It was acknowledged there was a question mark over whether some of this conduct was voluntary, but the tribunal also pointed out that certain allegations pre-dated her relationship with Bilotta.
Nicholson was found to be motivated by personal financial gain in making the expense claims and she had taken financial advantage of vulnerable clients by lying to them.
‘She had entirely forfeited the trust placed in her and had used her position in a way that she hoped would ensure she was not questioned by her clients because of her status,’ added the tribunal.
She was struck off and ordered to pay £74,429 costs.