Clients chose solicitor to be their “puppet” in dubious transaction

SDT: Judgment based upon hope and good wishes was unacceptable

An immigration lawyer who made what he described as “huge money” by facilitating a dubious international finance transaction has been suspended indefinitely by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The tribunal said Biplab Kumar Poddar had been chosen by his clients as their “puppet” because he had no experience of high-value international transactions, and, despite his denials, he had acted as their “banker”.

The SDT was critical of the solicitor saying that he would do it again if the opportunity arose.

Mr Poddar qualified in 2011 and was the COLP of two-partner East London law firm Hamlet Solicitors. He earned £10,100 for his role in the transaction, or just under 10% of the firm’s 2016/17 turnover.

He told the Solicitors Regulation Authority that the payment was a “huge” one-off opportunity.

The SDT said Mr Poddar’s expectation of a large fee had “caused him to pursue a path fraught with risk”, in which he “wilfully ignored” the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Regulations 2007 and his firm’s own AML policy.

He was instructed by a new client to accept $300,000 in relation to an $80m financial instrument, although ultimately the firm received around £122,000 and paid out £112,000.

It was not clear exactly who the client was, but he accepted instructions and/or funds from a number of people and paid it out to third parties in the absence of an underlying legal transaction, thereby acting as a banker.

The tribunal said the solicitor had not carried out due diligence to establish the identity of those with whom he was dealing and had only met one of his clients. He also failed to check the source of funds.

He breached further SRA rules, including acting with a lack of integrity, by facilitating a “transaction bearing the hallmarks of being dubious”.

A financial services agreement provided to Mr Poddar contained very basic spelling mistakes, errors and confusing clauses, mistakes which the SDT would have been “obvious even on a cursory inspection and would have sounded alarm bells in a solicitor who had read the document”.

Mr Poddar’s argument that he had applied his own, subjective, judgment to the circumstances as he saw them, along with his trust in others, was not good enough, the SDT said.

“Judgment based upon hope and good wishes, in this context, was unacceptable and an abrogation of his responsibility as a solicitor.”

It went on: “It appeared to the tribunal that [he] had never stopped to consider that the parties had had hidden and vested interests and had chosen him, a solicitor with no practical experience in international transactions of high value, as their puppet, and someone who would not ask the searching and probing questions which were required in these circumstances.”

The solicitor had “pursued a conscious course of action blind to his own lack of expertise” and the public “would be appalled” by the lack of critical analysis he displayed.

The SDT said there was no evidence of “genuine insight” from Mr Poddar, who denied all the allegations and told the tribunal that “if the circumstances presented again he would take the same course of action”.

In a separate matter, when acting in a conveyancing transaction, he paid £38,000 of the sale proceeds of a London home to his client and £30,000 to a third-party company. Though this was on instructions, there was no underlying legal transaction to justify the latter payment.

The SDT said that in both matters Mr Poddar had “surrendered his independence and he carried out whatever his clients wanted him to do”.

However, it found that, despite his “failure to follow the rules and poor decisions”, Mr Poddar’s “honesty had never been in question”.

Having given the matter “very careful consideration”, the SDT decided that the protection of the public and the profession’s reputation did not justify a preventing him from practising forever.

An indefinite suspension would allow him “a period of reflection and insight on his conduct and time to respond to further training so that he would no longer represent a material risk of harm to the public or to the reputation of the profession”.

Mr Poddar was also ordered to pay costs of £26,000.

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