Five-year suspension for solicitor – for practising while suspended

SDT: Some reservations about suspension

A veteran solicitor who practised while suspended has been suspended again, although the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said it had “some reservations” about the sanction.

The tribunal accepted the penalty that was proposed jointly by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and 71-year-old solicitor Michael Baker after initially rejecting their recommended three-year suspension.

It said this did not “adequately” reflect the seriousness of the misconduct he had admitted.

“The fact that [he] had disregarded a previous order of the tribunal was a matter of deep concern, and something which the tribunal took very seriously, as it represented a blatant disregard of the tribunal’s authority,” the SDT said.

“It was also an insult to the profession generally, in that it eroded the confidence the public placed in solicitors to abide by the rules, and to respect orders made by courts and tribunals.”

There was “a need” to protect both the public and the reputation of the profession from future harm by removing Mr Baker’s ability to practise but the SDT said it was “satisfied” that a strike-off was not justified.

“That said, the tribunal would not shrink from such a course in any future case where an order of the tribunal was ignored.

“The tribunal was prepared therefore to accept, albeit with some reservations, that it was proportionate and in the public interest that [Mr Baker] should be made subject to a five-year suspension with appropriate conditions.”

Mr Baker was admitted in 1992 but was suspended for a year by the SDT in January 2015 over breaches of the accounts rules, including a finding that he acted without integrity, while a partner and COFA at Kent firm Baker McDonald.

His return to practice was made subject to various conditions, including that he could not be a law firm owner and any employment in the profession had to be approved by the SRA.

The suspension began on 8 April 2015, by which time Mr Baker had resigned as a partner.

According to a statement of agreed facts and outcome put before the SDT, in February 2016 a partner at Baker McDonald invited Mr Baker to return to assist her on a matter; the clients were told he would be the partner’s “dedicated assistant for day-to-day contact”.

He then worked on the sale of their properties, business and additional land. A loan agreement formed part of the deal, under which the vendor clients deferred part of the purchase price in return for security by way of a charge over properties the buyers owned.

Mr Baker told the SRA that he had agreed to work in a clerical role on the matter on the basis that he was not practising as a solicitor.

But the tribunal was told: “Correspondence on the client files shows that [he] was doing mor than just clerical work over the relevant period (February 2016 to January 2017), including arranging for a restriction to be placed on the register as part of a legal charge and drafting a loan agreement.”

Mr Baker applied for a practising certificate in April 2016, which was granted. But the application for SRA permission was only made in December 2016 and granted the following month, meaning he practised for nine months in breach of the conditions.

The events only came to the SRA’s attention in 2022 when the clients complained to the SRA about the work that was done. In addition to the practising breaches, Mr Baker admitted that he completed the sale before securing the loan at HM Land Registry.

In non-agreed mitigation, Mr Baker said he was not paid for his work and “wrongly assumed” that acting as “something akin to an unqualified paralegal” was not in breach of the terms of his suspension.

He stressed that he never held himself out as a solicitor and all of his correspondence was overseen by the partner – with the benefit of hindsight, he said, he should have signed off correspondence as ‘for and on behalf of’ her.

He added that, even after the suspension ceased, he did not call himself a solicitor until the SRA’s permission was received, again wrongly assuming this was not in breach of the conditions.

Once the five-year suspension expires, Mr Baker will again be subject to conditions not allowing him to be a law firm owner or compliance officer, or be involved with client money, and must again seek SRA approval for any employment.

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