A solicitor who falsified emails in five conveyancing transactions as he struggled to cope with the post-Covid work surge, in one case telling a trainee to send a client false information, has been struck off
In an unusual move, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) urged “any solicitor whose work was being impacted by personal problems” to seek help before matters “escalated beyond their control”.
In an agreed outcome with Jonah David Michael, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said the solicitor was “fully culpable” for his misconduct and “chose to deliberately provide clients” with incorrect information.
“When asked to provide updates in matters, in order to perpetuate the lies he had told, he created false documents and sent them on to his clients.”
The SRA said Mr Michael’s dishonesty in the five client matters spanned a period of three months and included instructing a trainee to send information “which he knew to be false” to his client.
The regulator said Mr Michael told the trainee “not to share what she was asked to do with anyone else”. The trainee “did not act on these instructions” and reported her concerns about Mr Michael to her supervisor.
“Had the trainee solicitor undertaken this task, it would have exposed her to very serious professional repercussions.”
The SRA said Mr Michael, born in 1981 and admitted in 2011, was a solicitor working for London firm Lawrence Stephens at the time.
The law firm conducted a “virtual meeting” with him “to raise the issues that had come to light” at the end of May 2021, five months after he had joined.
The SRA said that after the various issues were raised, he “immediately terminated” the meeting and resigned the same day. Lawrence Stephens reported him to the SRA.
Mr Michael admitted what he had done. First, in March 2021, before forwarding an email to his client that had been received from the seller’s solicitors, he changed the date and time to give the impression that the email had been received around 48 hours after it actually had been.
Two months later, before forwarding an email to another client that he had sent to Santander earlier that day, he changed the time to give the impression that the email had been sent four hours earlier – before the client had raised the issue.
Mr Michael also “inserted a falsified email into the email chain which gave the impression that he had been liaising with Santander” on certain issues.
The solicitor instructed the trainee to forward an email to another client, but to change the date of the email to make it look as though enquiries had been raised almost immediately after the receipt of search results.
He also “emailed his client with an update whilst forwarding an email that he had purportedly sent to his client the previous day”, but in fact had not.
In the fifth instance, the solicitor forwarded an email that he had received from the seller’s solicitors responding to a number of queries, having changed the date and time to give the impression that the email “had been received approximately nine days after it had actually been received”.
Mr Michael admitted that he had failed to act with integrity and had acted dishonestly.
In mitigation not endorsed by the SRA, the solicitor said that, when he joined Lawrence Stephens in January 2021, he was told it did not have a residential conveyancing department at that time.
He inherited multiple files and said the firm did not deliver on promises to provide support, despite “constant” requests.
It was “close to the height” of the stamp duty holiday that triggered “a surge in cases” and “an unprecedented workload”.
Mr Michael was working remotely from home and so “never got to physically meet” his colleagues.
He said that, right from the start, he found himself working late into the evenings on several occasions close to or past midnight as well as weekends, “which was causing a strain on not only his health but his personal life”. He said he often found himself in tears.
The SDT said it had redacted references to Mr Michael’s health in the agreed outcome document, as there was no need for it “to enter the public domain”.
It added: “As a general observation, the tribunal urged any solicitor whose work was being impacted by personal problems to seek timely and appropriate help before matters escalated beyond their control.”
He was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £5,000.