'The Law Society is worse than a pit full of vipers'

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Tommy Butler is a bitter and angry man whose erstwhile faith in Scottish justice has been shattered. His venture into the murky world of internet domain names left him badly scarred, and he now brands the legal system "a joke".

The root of his deep discontent lies in a long-running dispute with the Law Society of Scotland. Mr Butler, 42, emerged very soured by the experience and describes the solicitors’ professional body as worse than "a pit full of vipers".

Born and bred in Glasgow and still living on a council estate in Drumchapel, Mr Butler worked as a shop assistant after leaving school. He had a spell working on market stalls and then trained as a screen printer.

"In 1990, when Glasgow was European City of Culture, I designed the word ‘Glasgow’ in all different languages. However, I discovered printing ink was attacking the back of my lungs and I decided it was time for a clean break, for the sake of my health," Mr Butler recalls.

"Like every other household, you go and buy a computer for yourself and the kids and I came across a website about domain names. It was before the big boom in domain names, and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s a brand new industry.’

"I got into domain names and decided I had better learn how it works. I read up on them and did a year-and-a-half course in web design."

The result was a company, Local Websites, which operates from his home, now with a computer in every room. Mr Butler quickly realised the value that can attach to domain names.

Within two weeks of paying 80 to register a particular name, he received an offer of 1,200 and agreed to sell it. Recently, he has paid 60,000 for a domain name he wanted.

"I wish I was a millionaire, but I’m not," he says. "The business does not bad and we are still building it up. We have about 1,300 domain names.

"If you’re going for new business and customers, you want a generic name associated with your product. If you own a bank, something like ‘bank.com’ will get you more business than ‘Goldbloom.com’.

"I believe the web is more local than global, and we have domain names for 28 areas of Glasgow, and for others in Paisley, Aberdeen and Dundee, and generic names like ‘glasgowpubs’.

"We will build a website for clients and advertise them under our domain names."

The trouble with the Law Society of Scotland began in 1999 after Mr Butler, who had designed websites for law firms, registered lawscot.co.uk for his legal portal.

"We thought it was short and generic. I did not know the Law Society’s web address was lawscot.org.uk. We assumed it had lawsocietyofscotland.com.

"In a period of two weeks, we started receiving e-mails for the Law Society. We got in touch with the people sending them and said the correct address was org.uk for the Law Society.

"We communicated with the society, letting them know we would forward the e-mails to them.

"This went on for three months. Then we received a call from the society asking if we would be interested in selling the domain name. We told them it was not for sale. We were still receiving e-mails and forwarding them.

"We got another phone call from the society, to go to Edinburgh and discuss selling the name. Again, we said it was not for sale."

Mr Butler alleges that in a further call the society’s stance changed completely and became aggressive. He says he discovered the society had taken out a trademark on "lawscot", but without notifying him as someone who could have lodged an objection, given his domain name.

"I knew as soon as that happened, they would serve a court order on us," he says.

"It happened and my domain name was suspended. They accused us of receiving e-mails meant for the Law Society and told the judge they had a trademark in ‘lawscot’.

"What they forgot to say was they had registered the trademark only six months before, and that the reason we had received their e-mails was that they had been advertising our domain name in their own literature as their e-mail address.

"I said to the society that if they donated 500 to a local charity and apologised to me in regard to the court order, I would give them the domain name free. They refused. We started phoning Scottish lawyers to represent us in defending the case and having the suspension lifted.

"After 50 calls, we managed to get one. The others said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ None of them was interested in taking on their own organisation."

Mr Butler says his lawyer was doing a brilliant job in preparing to go to court, but suddenly went cold and they parted company. The case files were returned to him and, he alleges, there was a letter from the Law Society’s legal representatives saying his lawyer was not to speak to the media about the dispute.

After another 100 calls, he was unable to obtain a Scottish lawyer. He finally managed to secure one - but only by going through a law firm in London. The offer of a donation to charity and an apology was again raised, but discounted.

Mr Butler explains: "I said that if they were not prepared to apologise - they had basically called me a cybersquatter - I was not prepared to give them the name. We got ready to go to court.

"They did not believe we had contacted over 100 Scottish solicitors. If they could prove I was lying, they were going to go for my character.

"We produced our telephone accounts showing the lawyers we had contacted. That shut them up on that matter. They started saying I was connected to some group called Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers.

"I got a letter from the man behind the group saying I had never met him."

At court, Mr Butler claims, his Scottish lawyer withdrew, leaving him with no representation. His English lawyer could not appear. He agreed a settlement with the Law Society under which he received 10,000 and the society became the registered owner of the domain name.

"I wanted to go into court, but not without representation, and I could not get it. The Law Society pulls the strings. I used to believe in the court system, now I think it is a joke, and the whole thing is disgusting. I had already spent 4,000 on legal fees, leaving 6,000 from the cheque.

"I am in dispute with my English lawyers over fees of 21,000. If I had to pay those, I would be 15,000 out of pocket. If they had apologised in the beginning, there would have been no court case.

"Instead, they went in with heavy-handed tactics. At the end, they wanted me to sign a non-disclosure clause and wanted us to send out a joint press release.

"They were not prepared to apologise, so I was not prepared to keep my mouth shut. And I would rather go into a pit full of vipers than issue a joint press release with the Law Society of Scotland."

LAW SOCIETY RESPONDS

THE Law Society of Scotland issued a lengthy statement in response to Tommy Butler’s allegations, many of which it disputes. The Law Society of Scotland’s statement said:

It is regrettable that after an action on the issue has been settled by agreement between the society and Mr Butler in the Scottish courts, Mr Butler feels it appropriate to rehearse, in the pages of The Scotsman, arguments which were never upheld and allegations which were never substantiated in court.

The society have acted in the public interest on this matter and will continue to do so, should the need arise again.

The society’s view, as far as instigating or defending litigation is concerned, is that it will focus on its statutory duty to act in the interests of the profession and the public.

The training solicitors receive at university, the law and the society’s rules leaves no doubt that solicitors are there to represent their clients to the best of their ability.

It is a solicitor’s duty to give their clients independent advice and to observe strict professional confidentiality.

Impartiality is a cornerstone of the professional life of a solicitor whose work can lead to representing clients against governments, multi-nationals, individuals and sometimes their own membership organisation.

Breaking those principles would constitute a breach of the professional practice rules.

That situation has never arisen. We have settled the case for less than we believe it would cost to run it through the courts. At no time did the society suggest a joint press release or ask for a non-disclosure clause. Indeed, a story appeared on a website, with quotes from Mr Butler and a copy of the settlement cheque which was still being held as undelivered, before settlement.

The society only took action to protect the interests of the public when Mr Butler informed the society that he intended to transfer the domain name (which had not yet been used on a live website) to a pressure group.

The society’s trademark application was published in accordance with the terms of the Trademarks Act 1994.

The registrar granted the society’s application, which required the registrar to be satisfied that there had been sufficient publication of the application and a sufficient case for that trademark to be granted.

The society were happy to discuss the offer of 500 which was made by Mr Butler, but we were informed by his solicitor that he had withdrawn the offer. The offer was never made again.

The society expressed neither belief nor disbelief at Mr Butler’s statements about the number of solicitors he said he had approached.

Proof of the number of solicitors approached to act for Mr Butler was not requested by the society, as it was not something made a part of the action by either party.

The question of Mr Butler’s character was not relevant to the action, and nor did the society seek to raise the matter.