Fine for solicitor who failed to register clients’ interests

SDT: SRA’s delay in dropping allegation was unacceptable

A conveyancer who failed to register her clients’ interests at the Land Registry within the time limit, in breach of undertakings, has been fined £10,000 for her misconduct.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) also criticised the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for withdrawing on the morning of the hearing an allegation that Nicola Helen Neilson had been dishonest or reckless.

It was only after Ms Neilson left Darlington firm Latimer Hinks in April 2019 that her failure to register the purchase of three properties – one dating back to 2013, the second to 2015 and the third to October 2018 – was discovered.

In two of the matters, she breached an undertaking and in two she provided “incomplete, misleading and incorrect information” to the lender and client about the delays – she told one lender that the application had been submitted when it had not been.

Ms Neilson, who qualified in 2003, admitted the allegations and said the first misleading email sent to the clients had been the result of “a genuine mistake”, with the follow-ups “piggy backing” off it.

“Had Ms Neilson not made the first error, she would not have continued to make the subsequent errors,” her counsel submitted.

In mitigation, counsel said Ms Neilson had shown genuine insight and taken actions at her current firm, where she is head of department, to avoid a repeat of these mistakes.

These included having “a dedicated secretary who is organised and places reminders in the calendar for deadlines”, and using “an efficient and functioning case management system”.

The firm also has a “structured and organised system of file reviews in place… which means fellow partners are reviewing my files to ensure all actions have been completed and deadlines are not missed”. This is supplemented by quarterly reviews of matter lists with supervisors.

Ms Neilson also co-operated with the SRA and made early admissions.

The SDT concluded: “She had not managed her professional obligations, but there was no evidence of ill-motive. The misconduct was not planned – indeed her conduct was precisely the opposite. Ms Neilson had made an initial error which then got compounded.

“The tribunal accepted that she was overworked and had not checked as she ought to have done.”

It was “fortunate” that there had been no loss to clients, but “the potential for loss and serious complications was significant”.

The SDT set the fine at £10,000 and rejected the SRA’s recommendation of placing restrictions on her practising certificate, saying: “Ms Neilson had taken a number of concrete steps to prevent a repeat and there had been no repeat since these matters.”

The tribunal expressed its displeasure that the SRA sought to withdraw allegations of dishonesty and recklessness on the morning of what had been listed as a three-day hearing in October.

It said: “Ms Neilson’s position had been made perfectly clear on the allegation of dishonesty since 25 July 2022. It was not for her to produce evidence to support her denial, as the burden of proof lay on the SRA not on her.

“The SRA had undertaken further investigations in August and at that stage, had persisted with the allegations of dishonesty and recklessness. The only material factor that changed between August and October appeared to be the admission to unrelated allegations by Ms Neilson.

“This troubled the tribunal considerably, as it appeared to the tribunal from what [the SRA’s counsel] had submitted, that the dishonesty allegation was unlikely to be proved from the point at which Ms Neilson had served her answer and certainly by the time the SRA had conducted its further investigations in August 2022.

“It therefore appeared to the tribunal that the timing of the decision to apply to withdraw the dishonesty allegation was linked to Ms Neilson’s admissions to other allegations.”

In reducing the costs sought by the SRA from £27,000 to £16,500, the SDT said it was not acceptable to make the application so late in the proceedings.

“The tribunal did not find that the allegation should never have been brought. However, once further enquiry had undermined the basis of the SRA’s case, it did not appear that the SRA had taken stock and examined the evidence in a timely fashion.

“If the application had been made earlier then this would very likely have saved costs.”

It also found that the time the SRA spent investigating and pursuing the case was “excessive”.

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