A “disorganised” legal aid lawyer who said he wanted “to direct his time and focus to the legal work” of his practice has been fined £25,000 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The SDT said Michael David Long’s misconduct had “potentially put the funds of vulnerable clients” and the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) at risk, which was “inevitably harmful” to public trust in the profession.
Mr Long admitted keeping money for professional disbursements and money due to the LAA in the office account of North-West London firm David Long Solicitors, instead of the client account.
He also admitted transferring over £21,000 in damages awarded to two clients from client account to office account.
Mr Long admitted having acted with a lack of integrity and recklessly by breaching the accounts rules. The tribunal accepted that the “actual harm” to clients and the LAA was “minimal”, given that he had “made good all errors”.
The sole principal said he accepted responsibility for breaches in financial management, while noting that “poor performance” from his bookkeeper and accountants had been a feature of his “admittedly disorganised office environment”.
Counsel for Mr Long said in mitigation: “The vast majority of tenants involved in legal disputes had no representation and he took great satisfaction in, for example, helping a family to remain in their home.
“He may have 30 to 40 cases in court and an effective duty desk can make a difference to legal outcomes. On some days it is possible to prevent up to 20 evictions.”
Mr Long said he had difficulties with a bookkeeper who was only prepared to work at weekends, and another who fell ill, and “recognised that he allowed the firm to become disorganised and this led to the accounts rule breaches he admitted”.
Mr Long qualified in 1997 and set up the firm in 2006. He employed a number of assistants but was the only one who could operate the firm’s office and client accounts. The firm specialised in housing work from 2011. It has now stopped trading.
Mr Long resigned as his firm’s COFA in November 2018 and by the time of his disciplinary hearing was practising under conditions that he would not be a COFA and would deliver an accountant’s report to the SRA every six months.
However, the tribunal was referred to documents showing that, despite the restrictions, he had not filed the accountant’s report due in June 2019.
The SRA alleged, and Mr Long admitted, that in seven cases he had not paid professional disbursements, particularly barristers and surveyors’ fees, creating a maximum client account shortage between 2013 and 2017 of £21,800.
He also admitted that between March 2016 and October 2017 he kept money due to the LAA in office account, resulting in client account shortages totalling £15,800.
Mr Long further admitted transferring damages awards from client to office account between June 2016 and April 2017 in breach of the accounts rules, failing to remedy breaches of the rules promptly on discovery and failing to report material breaches of the rules in his roles as COLP and COFA.
Mr Long denied the SRA’s allegation that by retaining the damages of vulnerable housing clients, he had prioritised his interests and prevented them making urgent repairs.
“He stated that the allegations relating to client money had no impact whatsoever on their repairs being carried out.”
The SDT said it “accepted and shared” Mr Long’s assessment that he should not be allowed to continue to practise as a sole practitioner.
As well as imposing a £25,000 fine and costs order of £15,000, the tribunal imposed practice conditions for an “indefinite period” preventing Mr Long from being a sole practitioner, a COLP and COFA or the sole signatory on any client or office account.