In a recent case heard by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), solicitor Mr Anthony Gale was suspended from practice for 12 months because he failed to protect his vulnerable client from being taken advantage of by a fraudster in relation to a property transaction. In this article, we will take a look at the background of this case, the arguments heard, and the conclusion reached by the SDT.
Background to the case
Mr Gale, a solicitor with 32 years of experience, was referred to the SRA in relation to concerns that he breached several of the SRA Principles 2011 when he acted for both the buyer and seller of a property in Harrogate. According to the details of the case, Mr Gale failed to protect client A, the seller, who has a diagnosis of autism, has a mental age of 12, and who he knew to be at risk of undue influence and financial abuse. The SDT heard that Mr Gale breached Principles 2, 4, 5, 6 and 10 because he:
- failed to undertake proper enquiries in relation to the transaction;
- failed to ascertain whether the transfer of the property was in the interests of Client A;
- failed properly to advise Client A as to the risks and consequences of the transfer;
- failed to take steps to protect Client A’s interests, including any right he had to continue residing in the property.
Had Mr Gale carried out the necessary checks on behalf of this vulnerable client, he should have discovered that in May 2022, the purchaser had been convicted of several counts of fraud and one count of money laundering and had been sentenced to five and a half years imprisonment.
Mr Gale had previously been fined £10,000 in 2018 in relation to five conveyancing matters in which he acted without instructions or consent, failed to carry out the necessary due diligence, and did not register the lender’s charges.
The SDT’s Judgment
The SDT found that Mr Gale was culpable for his actions on the basis that he:
- appeared to have been motivated by expediency and demonstrable tardiness
- planned his actions
- acted in breach of trust in relation to Client A who was vulnerable
- had direct and sole responsibility for the circumstances upon which his misconduct was predicated, and
- had significant experience
In terms of the impact on his vulnerable client, the SDT found that the harm caused was “profound”. In particular, they noted that Mr Gale had not put in place any formal agreement entitling Client A to continue to reside in the property when this was supposed to have been arranged. Of particular concern was that Mr Gale asserted that none of his client’s impairments were apparent to him at the material time.
The SDT stated, “The admitted misconduct represented a grave departure the “complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness” expected of a solicitor. The harm Mr Gale caused to the solicitors’ profession was extensive. The harm caused both to those directly involved and to the profession was eminently foreseeable”.
The Tribunal made the determination that the actions of Mr Gale were deliberate, calculated, and repeated, facilitated his client being taken advantage of, and represented a “material breach of his obligations to protect the public and the reputation of the profession”, the potential for which he knew or ought to have known.
The SDT commented, “It was plain to the Tribunal that Mr Gale had a complete blind spot with regard to the obligations to “know your client”, the risks of fraud in conveyancing transactions, management of conflicts of interest, and the obligations attendant upon accepting instructions from vulnerable clients”.
The SDT found that there were no mitigating factors which might weigh in favour of the Respondent.
The SDT’s conclusion
The SDT ordered that Mr Gale be suspended from practice for 12 months from 10th October 2022 and pay costs of £12,000. They also stated that Mr Gale would be subject to a number of practice restrictions at the end of his suspension, including not being able to:
- practise as a sole practitioner, freelance solicitor, or sole owner of an authorised or recognised body
- practise as a partner or member of an LLP, LDP, or ABS
- hold client money
- be a signatory on a client account
- work as a solicitor until the completion of courses or further training on KYC, the risk of fraud in conveyancing transactions, conflicts, and accepting instructions from vulnerable clients.
This case is a timely reminder of the importance of putting in place rigorous training and supervision procedures. This is especially so for lawyers and solicitors who work from home and hence may not be subject to the same level of oversight and supervision as is the case in an office. Unfortunately, experience and length of service within the legal profession cannot be assumed to equate to integrity and honesty.
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