A solicitor who regularly overcharged clients for search fees and transferred money from client to office account without their consent has been suspended for two years by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The tribunal said Yasmin Qureshi, who worked as a consultant on a commission basis, was motivated “by personal gain” as her earnings were based on 60% of the amount she billed.
The SDT said Ms Qureshi had “engaged in an underhand pattern of behaviour during most of her period of consultancy” with Dutton Gregory in Southampton and had “instructed a junior staff member” to behave in the way she had.
“Although the amount involved was not a large amount, the breach of trust was significant.”
The tribunal said completion statements were complex, and often difficult to understand even when they were accurate, and “in this case most clients would have struggled to identify exactly what was going on”.
Ms Qureshi’s misconduct was “deliberate, calculated and repeated” throughout her consultancy with Dutton Gregory, between August 2014 and December 2015.
The SDT said the solicitor attempted to “legitimise a process which she knew was not acceptable” by suggesting in an email to the firm before she started work that it would need to change its terms and conditions to allow “administration fees” to be deducted from clients.
Dutton Gregory had since spent “a considerable amount of time” identifying losses to clients and paying refunds.
The tribunal decided that, as well as being suspended, Ms Qureshi should pay a fine of £2,608.95 – the amount that was eventually repaid to clients by the law firm.
The SDT heard how the solicitor, who was born in 1975 and admitted in 2003, was known as Yasmin Gillies while she was working for Dutton Gregory.
Following her departure, the firm sent a report to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), expressing concern about “billing irregularities” in the conveyancing team at Southampton.
The law firm said the solicitor had “charged clients sums for disbursements which were more than the amount charged to the firm”, and in some instances “a bill was prepared to represent profit costs on files which related to aborted transactions”.
In these cases, money paid on account for search fees was transferred to office account rather than returned to the client.
The SRA gave examples of when Ms Qureshi had overcharged for search fees. In six cases, she had asked for payments on account of £300, paid search fees of £210 to £225, and failed to return the difference to the client.
In one case, she transferred an outstanding client balance of £1,054 to office account, invoicing the clients but not explaining what further work had been carried out by the firm.
Ms Qureshi did not appear and was not represented at the tribunal hearing. In a letter sent to the SRA by her solicitors in March 2017 she denied all the allegations.
However, by July 2017, Ms Qureshi had “withdrawn from further communication” with the SRA and “had not engaged with the tribunal proceedings at all”.
The solicitor was found to have lacked integrity and breached both other SRA Principles and the accounts rules.
Conditions were imposed so that, at the end of her two-year suspension, Ms Qureshi would be prevented from being a sole practitioner, partner or member of a law firm, dealing with client money, being a COLP or COFA or working as a solicitor in any role without the approval of the SRA.