A family law solicitor who lied to and took advantage of vulnerable clients, including victims of domestic violence, has been struck off and ordered to pay almost £75,000 in costs.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Karen Nicholson’s “wide-ranging” misconduct included making false expenses claims, using five false CVs and breaking legal aid rules by instructing two process servers who were not local – but had fathered her children.
The tribunal said Ms Nicholson’s misconduct over a six-year period was “deeply damaging” to the profession’s reputation.
“Clients who could ill-afford legal fees and who were entitled to legal aid were made to pay fees that they ought not to have been.”
Clients who were victims of domestic abuse, including violence, trusted solicitors to extricate them from “incredibly difficult and dangerous” situations. Ms Nicholson had “taken financial advantage of those clients and had lied to them”.
The tribunal heard that Ms Nicholson, admitted in July 2011, was employed by Suffolk firm Jackamans solicitors from May 2012 until May 2017.
There she used two process servers, Mr Harrison – with whom she had had two children in 2003 and 2004 – and Mr Bilotta, neither of whom were known to the firm. In six identified cases, the Legal Aid Agency reduced the process servers’ invoices on assessment, because she should have used a local one, losing the firm over £2,100.
Ms Nicholson went on to work at Levy & Co in Essex from May to August 2017. Her interview was arranged following a phone call from Mr Bilotta, who told the firm he worked in a recruitment business.
Ms Nicholson asked the firm if she could continue using her two process servers, who she said would “go the extra mile” for her.
The solicitor was asked whether she had a personal relationship with Mr Bilotta and denied it – less than three weeks later, Ms Nicholson gave birth to another child. Mr Bilotta was the father.
Ms Nicholson “knowingly and dishonestly” submitted inaccurate expenses claims at Levy & Co, and also in two more cases at another Essex firm, Steed & Steed, where she worked from February 2018 to June 2018, when she was dismissed. It rejected her contention that the inaccuracies were accidental.
While working at Steed & Steed, Ms Nicholson conducted reserved legal activities through UK Family Law Group, a company owned by Mr Bilotta that was not authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The SDT recorded: “Several clients were required to pay monies to the UK Family Law Group for this work. Ms Nicholson further failed to apply for legal aid for two clients and then lied to them about having done so.”
The SRA identified five clients who received invoices from UK Family Law Group for legal work carried out by Ms Nicholson at Steed & Steed, who made payments totalling £9,000. Four of these clients were referred by a domestic abuse support charity.
She failed to make legal aid applications for two of them – despite telling them that she had. Both were later awarded legal aid when new solicitors took over.
In relation to another of the clients, she failed to return her marriage certificate and falsely said she had served a notice of severance of a joint tenancy on the other owner and sent it to the Land Registry.
The SDT said Ms Nicholson also “submitted false and misleading CVs to prospective employers” on five occasions between January 2018 and August 2019. “As time went on, the misleading details in each CV increased as previous difficulties were concealed.”
The changes she made to her career history included not mentioning law firms she had worked for and changing dates, to create “a more favourable impression of her employment history than was in fact the case”.
All the allegations against Ms Nicholson were found proved, including that she acted dishonesty in respect of six of them.
Ms Nicholson denied the allegations, arguing that she was herself the victim of an “abusive relationship” with Mr Bilotta.
The SDT said: “A potentially mitigating factor was that there may have been some element of pressure on Ms Nicholson in relation to some of the aspects of her misconduct, but that clear link was not established.”
Her misconduct was “wide-ranging and not all of it related to Mr Bilotta – indeed some predated her relationship with him”.
The tribunal noted the solicitor’s health issues, which she had raised as part of applications to adjourn, but these appeared to “post-date some, if not all, of her misconduct”.
Ms Nicholson was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £74,430, £11,000 less than the Solicitors Regulation Authority had sought.