Saturday, February 07, 2009

Solicitors Discipline Tribunal asked to rehear case of sabotage by GSPC members in Arran property market

Shady goings on in Arran report a battle between solicitors from the Glasgow Solicitors Property Centres and local estate agents …

The Herald reports :

Estate agent wants tribunal to rehear case of ‘sabotage’

ALISON CAMPSIE February 07 2009

There is no shortage of incomers to Arran. So impressed are its visitors that many return to settle on the island after enjoying a happy holiday there, seduced by its picture-perfect setting and its swell of natural beauty.

Houses, until recently, changed hands in just a few weeks with a brisk turnover of impressive Victorian villas and quaint stone cottages, many with glorious views.

For estate agents on Arran, the past decade has been boom time and more of them have started to operate in the area to service the growing numbers who go there to pursue an island idyll.

Elizabeth Blair, 49, was one of those professionals. Her family goes back four generations on Arran and, after training in Glasgow as a solicitor and working in Ayr, she decided to open an estate agency in 2006. At that time, she was the island's only resident solicitor and was already conveyancing for clients. So why not sell the properties too?

"It was a no-brainer. The island was booming, houses were selling very well and I was already doing the conveyancing work for estate agents. I thought I would go in at ground level and do it myself," she said.

It was a small operation, working out of the home she shares with her mother and daughter.

In her first year, she had just two properties on her books, but she was happy with her new direction.

But it was this move which led to her becoming embroiled in a malicious campaign against her professional activities. It was a situation starkly at odds with the pleasantries of island life.

A number of her adverts in locally-circulated copies of the Glasgow Solicitors Property Guide were sabotaged with thick black stickers used to cover the details, effectively deleting Ms Blair's clients from its pages.

As a result, Graeme Miller, who ran Miller Stewart estate agents in Brodick and who also has an office in Glasgow's east end, was brought before a Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) which this week concluded that he should be censured for failing to supervise his staff.

That conclusion should have, on the face of it least, brought an end to the long-running and increasingly hostile dispute, but Ms Blair is demanding that the tribunal is reheard.

The censure came after Mr Miller admitted to failing to supervise his staff properly and the tribunal heard that he had found evidence on a colleague's computer that stickers had been purchased.

The more serious charge against Mr Miller, which related to the defaced ads, was dropped before the tribunal and never heard by the panel.

This is despite the solicitor admitting responsibility on behalf of his staff to the Law Society of Scotland, at a professional standards committee in 2007.

That committee concluded that his actions were merely "thoughtless" and that no further action would be taken.

The matter was then referred to the SSDT for further action but Ms Blair yesterday described this hearing, and its conclusion, as a "travesty of justice".

No one at the SSDT was available to speak to The Herald yesterday, and the Law Society of Scotland said it could only confirm that it had referred the matter to the tribunal. Neither could answer a specific list of questions about the case.

While Ms Blair, her mother Jan Reid and two of her clients had attended the hearing, none of them were called to offer any evidence to the panel.

A complaint now sits with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission about the way the hearing was conducted. In the complaint, Ms Blair said that the tribunal was fed "a litany of false statements and an unfounded character assassination on myself"

and that it represented a "chilling disregard" for the Solicitors' Code of Conduct.

The tribunal heard that Ms Blair had been refused entry to the GSPC. However, the GSPC said yesterday that this was not the case.

A spokesman said: "We had no idea that this was to be put to the tribunal.

"It was completely unexpected that he (Mr Miller) was going to make the allegation which had no basis in fact.

"As soon as we heard what had been said, we took action to reassure that it was not the case."

The tribunal was also told that Mr Miller decided to "minimise his presence on the island" because of a "separate and unusual aspect of professional life on Arran" and that he had endured "the sudden onset of personal malice."

He decided to sell up in 2007, the tribunal heard. The Miller Stewart office on Brodick seafront became Arran Property.

A search of company records shows that Mr Miller is the director of the new estate agency and that he owns 90% of its shares.

The Herald tried to contact Mr Miller at both his Glasgow office and at Arran Property, where an employee said he was not on the island and would not want to be interviewed.

One of the two retired couples whose property details were allegedly sabotaged yesterday spoke of their experience. In 2008, they received a letter from the Law Society of Scotland which outlined an offer from Mr Miller of £1000 in compensation and an apology. The offer was declined.

The wife, who asked not to be named, said: "All we were trying to do was sell our property. I got a copy of the guide and saw our ad had a black sticker on it. I picked up two other copies and it was the same. We were totally at a loss to know why.

"It happened the following week too. We were getting concerned, we had a property to sell and people who were coming on to the island at the weekend did not know about it.

"We can't turn the clock back, but of course we would be happier if we hadn't been caught up in the black sticker escapade."

The GSPC spokesman added: "Miller Stewart is no longer operating on Arran and we would not accept them doing so. As soon as we knew what Miller Stewart was doing we made arrangements that it could not happen again.

"At the same time our board of directors wrote a strongly worded letter saying that the action was entirely unacceptable and the consequence was that eventually Mr Miller decided it was no longer sensible for his firm to be a member of the GSPC. Miller Stewart ceased to be a GSPC member on Arran."

Mr Miller is no longer a member of the GSPC on Arran but his Glasgow office is still linked to the organisation.

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