There have been several recent cases of dishonesty before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) following Solicitors Regulation Authority investigations (SRA). Below is a summary of two of these decisions and what can be learnt from them.
SRA v Williams, 14 September 2020 (date of consideration of Agreed Outcome)
In SRA v Williams, the SDT heard that Ms Williams was alleged to have altered a fee note sent from a Chambers to disguise the true date on which she made payment. She had been asked to provide John Poyser, of Manchester firm John Poyser & Co Solicitors, with a copy of a cheque paid to the barrister following work done. This was because there was no record of the barrister’s fee being paid. The barrister’s records showed payment being made in March 2018, while Ms Williams had inserted in her firm’s records that payment was made in July 2017.
Ms Williams subsequently sent a WhatsAppmessage to Mr Poyser, asking him to remove the adjusted fee note from a file of documents being sent to the SRA. This was to avoid bringing the adjustment to the regulator’s attention. Mr Poyser passed Ms William’s message on to the SRA.
Although Ms Williams admitted that she had kept £2,000 of the money paid by a client to discharge the barrister’s fee, she argued that she had already paid the £2,000 out of her personal funds, so was in effect reimbursing herself. Upon leaving the firm in August 2018, Ms Williams provided a written apology stating she had panicked when she should have confessed to her management what had occurred with the payment.
The SDT concluded :
“The Respondent had admitted three episodes of dishonest conduct over a 16 month period. The first incident was motivated by personal gain and a desire to deprive the client account of funds that should have been deposited therein. The subsequent acts of dishonesty were (a) perpetrated with the intention of covering up her initial dishonest act (b) planned, (c) premediated and (d) self-serving. Her misconduct caused irreparable harm to the reputation of the legal profession, breached the fundamental tenet that all solicitors should be capable of being trusted to the ends of the earth and was incompatible with her continued inclusion on the Roll of Solicitors.”
Ms Williams had been suspended for a year after appearing before the SDT in 2006. This fact would have undoubtedly contributed to the Tribunal’s final decision to strike her off the Roll of Solicitors.
SRA v Toms, 3 September 2020
Raymond Lawrence Toms, sole practitioner with Plymouth firm, Goldbergs Solicitors, was struck off last month after transferring client money into the office account. Mr Toms also admitted to overcharging clients, not paying disbursements to third parties, and disguising improper fund transfers by “cancelling, delaying, or failing to send cheques”.
The dishonesty was discovered by a fee-earner, who blew the whistle to the SRA in 2015. The firm closed in 2018. The misappropriated money was used to ‘ease cashflow’, pay counsel fees and ATE insurance premiums, amongst other things.
In the written judgment , it was held:
“The Tribunal considered that the Respondent’s conduct was such that it was untenable for the Respondent to remain in the Roll. The protection of the public and the protection of the reputation of the profession demanded that the Respondent be struck off the Roll of Solicitors. In the circumstances, the agreed sanction of striking the Respondent off the Roll was appropriate and proportionate to the seriousness of the Respondent’s misconduct.”
This case illustrates how difficult it can be for a whistleblower in this type of situation to come forward. The solicitor who contacted the SRA stated :
“I make this report with a heavy heart. You will no doubt consider whether I have been under a professional obligation to make a report earlier.
“I really do not want to jeopardise my colleagues’ jobs but the situation cannot continue indefinitely.”
The solicitor said he had “no desire” to see his employer face disciplinary action but he was satisfied that Mr Toms was in breach of his duties and a risk to clients.
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