Fee-earner who favoured one client over another fails to lift ban

SDT: SRA panel was not considering morality of matters

A non-solicitor fee-earner’s challenge to a ban from working for law firms, after he favoured the interests of a client who suffered from Alzheimer’s over her mentally ill husband, has failed.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) imposed the ban on Anthony Smith, based at Dorset firm Grenville J Walker Solicitors, after he transferred £100,000 to the wife from the husband.

The tribunal said Mr Smith was “labouring under a misconception” as to the relevant issues when the SRA’s adjudication panel imposed the ban in 2017.

The panel did not consider “the morality/rights and wrongs of matters” between the couple, “but a question fundamental to professional conduct, namely whether Mr Smith had favoured Mrs B’s interests over those of Mr B”.

The “equalising” of the couple’s assets “was not his decision to make” and, if Mr Smith believed there had been “serious wrongdoing” by Mr B, he should have “immediately ceased to act” for him and contacted the police.

“Instead, Mr Smith continued to act for both Mr and Mrs B, taking Mr B’s money and paying it to Mrs B.”

The SDT heard that Mr Smith started dealing with the couple’s affairs when Mr B was detained under the Mental Health Act and his wife was in hospital with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Mrs B signed a general power of attorney appointing Mr Smith and her son as attorneys in September 2012. Later that month, Mr B signed a general power of attorney appointing Mr Smith as his sole attorney.

Using that, Mr Smith made four payments from Mr B’s personal bank accounts totalling £80,000 to Mrs B’s account, with two further payments of £20,000 made from the proceeds of the sale of their jointly owned property.

The SDT said Mr B later received £100,000 plus interest from the Solicitors Compensation Fund, authorised on the basis that Mr Smith “failed to account properly” for the payments.

The SRA found multiple breaches of the SRA principles and banned him from working for law firms without its permission, under section 43 of the Solicitors Act 1974.

Mr Smith applied to the SDT to get the ban removed and argued that he was “not a risk to the public”.

He said the SRA had been “‘foolish’ and ‘naïve’ to believe Mr B’s lies, return stolen money to a criminal, and prohibit a hardworking, conscientious, and honest practitioner from doing his work”.

The SDT said: “Mr Smith’s fundamental submission was that Mr B stole his wife’s money. Therefore, it belonged to her, and it was only fair to return it to her.”

The SRA said Mr Smith had not shown “sufficient insight into his behaviour”, seeking to justify it by making allegations against Mr B.

The regulator said no law firm had applied for permission to employ Mr Smith; rather, he had sought locum employment with at least eight firms over three years and not disclosed the existence of the section 43 order.

As a result, he was convicted by Hereford Magistrates’ Court in 2021 of seven offences under section 44 of the 1974 Act, by continuing to “seek and accept employment with solicitor firms whilst failing to inform them of the section 43 order”.

The court imposed a fine of £500 for each offence, and a victim surcharge of £170.

The SRA said “the fact that Mr Smith may have been working without supervision because he chose to hide the existence of the section 43 order did not demonstrate rehabilitation, but the opposite”.

Dismissing the application, the SDT said the SRA panel’s findings “were not unreasonable and not outside the bounds within which reasonable disagreement was possible”.

It was also “concerned by Mr Smith’s continued failure to recognise that his conduct had been wrong”.

He was ordered to pay costs of £2,900.

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