Criminal legal aid solicitor struck off for accounts rule breaches

SDT: Strike-off was necessary

A solicitor has been struck off after nearly 40 years in practice after admitting that the difficulties of relying on payment from criminal legal aid work overwhelmed him.

Keith John O’Neil agreed that he would not seek to practise again in a regulated firm after accounting errors were uncovered, along with a false declaration to an insurer about whether his firm was being investigated by the regulator at the time.

Mr O’Neill was admitted in 1982 and was a sole practitioner at Andrews McQueen in Bournemouth from 2014 until the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) intervened in February 2019.

In an agreed outcome approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, the solicitor admitted the breaches but claimed in mitigation that it became “increasingly difficult” to manage his professional conduct obligations whilst relying on payment from criminal legal aid work and that, as a result, the management of his practice suffered.

He was charged with four accounts rule breaches that occurred between 2009 and 2018.

These included the transfer of a residual balance of about £5,000 from client to office accounts, apparently to pay bills that were in fact illegitimate bills raised in order to reduce the balances on client ledgers to nil.

He accepted that this was improper, but said he genuinely believed that all of the money was properly payable to the firm.

Meanwhile, in September 2017 Mr O’Neill ticked the ‘no’ box asking whether the firm was under regulatory investigation when applying to Aon UK for professional indemnity insurance.

In fact, the office bank account had been subject to forensic investigation for nine months.

He claimed this was a “genuine mistake”.

Among other things, at the end of 2016 the solicitor was asked to explain a list of 200 credit balances totalling £242,000, a figure that kept growing.

He explained that monies paid by clients or the Legal Aid Agency for disbursements had not been recorded on the client side of the ledger.

Mr O’Neill accepted his misconduct was “extremely serious” and gave binding undertakings that he would not seek readmission to the roll or otherwise work in an entity regulated by the SRA.

The SRA agreed that if the undertakings were complied with, it would not pursue an unadmitted allegation of dishonesty.

The tribunal said: “The admitted failures, including to protect client money, were of such seriousness that the tribunal considered the proposed sanction of strike-off was appropriate and necessary.”

Mr O’Neill agreed to pay costs of £33,000, although the tribunal would have to give leave to enforce the payment. He was made bankrupt last July and said the intervention is his firm has caused him and his family “serious financial and emotional consequences”.

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