An assistant solicitor who took over a firm after the principal was struck off allowed her to keep practising under her maiden name, use the firm’s office and be sole signatory on its bank accounts.
Mahesh Chouhan was suspended for two years by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), which said he had been manipulated to an extent and was “out of his depth” when he became senior partner.
“[He was] not competent to have been in a position to agree to own and manage a legal practice.”
Bina Maistry, previously senior partner and sole equity partner of West London law firm ABM Solicitors and Advocates, was struck off  on 15 October 2018 for misleading a judge that she was a barrister.
Mr Chouhan, born in 1983 and qualified in 2011, joined ABM as an assistant solicitor in July 2017. He entered into an agreement with Ms Maistry on 1 October 2018 under which the firm was effectively assigned to him in return for £200,000 – payable “over a period of undefined time” – and he became responsible for its management a fortnight later.
However, Ms Maistry appeared in court for clients twice the following month in child placement cases.
The firm’s former bookkeeper revealed that Ms Maistry had been holding herself out as a solicitor using her maiden name, attended the firm’s offices “most afternoons” to see clients and that Mr Chouhan’s decisions had to “go through” her. She also remained the only person at the firm who could sign cheques.
This lasted until at least the following August, shortly before the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) shut down ABM.
The SDT said: “It appeared to the tribunal that the respondent had found himself in charge of a firm with no real understanding of the roles of a COLP or COFA, indeed he admitted he had taken on the position of senior partner without understanding the role.”
However, the tribunal said that “not understanding what he had got himself into” did not excuse the solicitor’s conduct.
The SDT approved an agreed outcome with the SRA, in which Mr Chouhan admitted causing or allowing the employment of a struck-off solicitor, in breach of the Solicitors Act 1974.
He also failed to have proper accounting systems and to replace a shortfall on client account of at least £11,500 by December 2018.
Mr Chouhan admitted that the shortfall was caused by “over-transfers from the client bank account” to office account. He transferred £7,000 to the client account in January 2019, but it was not enough to rectify the situation.
The solicitor also admitted practising through an unauthorised body between January 2019 and August 2019 as he should have registered himself with the SRA as a sole practitioner, and failing to tell the firm’s insurers what had happened.
He admitted multiple charges of acting without integrity – there were no charges of dishonesty.
In mitigation, Mr Chouhan told the SRA he recognised that he “should have been more proactive in ensuring the accounts were up to date and correct”.
He accepted that he should not have allowed Ms Maistry access to the office or have taken on the position of senior partner without understanding the role.
The tribunal accepted the proposed outcome that Mr Chouhan be suspended for two years and pay costs of £24,500 – his conduct was “not so serious” as to warrant striking him off.
Conditions were imposed for his return to practice that will prevent him from practising as a sole practitioner, freelance solicitor or from an unregulated firm, being a partner in any kind of law firm, and from holding client money, being a signatory on client account or being a COLP and COFA.