Fraud, overbilling and more – SRA bans non-solicitors over misconduct

SRA: Section 43 orders

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has banned a string of non-solicitors from working in the profession, with issues like theft, overbilling and fabricating documents among the causes.

The regulator has recently issued several orders under section 43 of the Solicitors Act 1974, under which it can prohibit a non-solicitor from having any role at a law firm without its permission.

Chantelle Dallas was a paralegal in National Accident Law’s claim preparation team. A review of call data highlighted that the number of units she was charging each day appeared high given the volume of telephone calls she made.

This prompted a review of her time recording, using data from three randomly selected weeks between October and December 2020, which found no corresponding phone call on 83 out of 323 time entries logged in that period.

“These phone calls had been logged on the case management system as part of the firm’s automated billing process [and] could have resulted in clients being billed for calls that did not take place if it had not been identified and addressed by the firm.”

The firm reported its concerns to the SRA and dismissed Ms Dallas in January. She admitted her misconduct to the SRA and co-operated with its investigation. The regulator noted that she received no financial benefit from what she had done.

Alison Copeland, who was a legal executive at Stevenage firm Heckford Norton, was instructed by the executor of an estate to sell shares in January and June 2020.

The following month, the client complained that there had been a delay in selling the shares, resulting in a financial loss. Ms Copeland had reported to the client that this was because the online sales portal was compromised.

However, she then admitted to the firm that she had misled the client – she could have sold the shares by telephone but did not because the waiting time on calls was so long.

The firm suspended Ms Copeland but then lifted it soon after on the basis that there were no similar matters that needed to be disclosed.

However, a few weeks later, ahead of a random file review of one of her files as part of an annual audit, Ms Copeland admitted having fabricated documents on the file of another estate.

Back in 2019, it emerged that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had made an overpayment of £170.50 to the estate. As the client account did not hold sufficient funds, the executor paid the sum directly to the DWP to rectify this.

Ms Copeland overlooked this and made a second payment of £170.50 to the DWP some months later. The matter concluded and the client paid the outstanding balance due to the firm, less the £170.50 he had paid.

To balance the client account, Ms Copeland made good the money from her personal account and created four attendance notes to give the impression that the second payment of £170.50 had been returned by the DWP to the client.

Ms Copeland was dismissed and encouraged to make a self-report of the events to CILEX, which she did not do. When she renewed her membership, she falsely declared that she had had no complaints from clients in the previous 12 months.

Ms Copeland admitted dishonestly misleading the first client and CILEX, and fabricating the attendance notes.

In mitigation, she pointed out that she received no financial benefit from her conduct and said these were “isolated errors of judgement brought on by a heavy workload”; she had felt “under extreme pressure and was suffering stress at the time”.

Jacqueline Wilkinson, finance director of Northumberland firm Browell Smith & Co since 2005 – and COFA from 2013 to 2018 – transferred three tranches of residual client monies, totalling £140,000, from the designated deposit account where they were being held to the office account. The money was used to pay VAT and salaries.

On each occasion, the firm replaced the client monies in full within 32 days before reporting what had happened to the SRA.

Ravinderjit Gataurda, who worked in the property department of Leeds firm Richardson & Co knowingly backdated eight declarations of trust, incorrectly signed a declaration of trust in the name of another solicitor and incorrectly witnessed three declarations of trust by giving false details of his employment.

The events occurred in 2009 and the firm closed in 2010. The SRA said Mr Gataurda lied when asked about execution of the declarations of trust in 2019.

Alison Herdson was a conveyancing paralegal at Cheshire firm Betesh Middleton Law before being dismissed in August 2019. It was found that she fabricated clients’ initials on a Land Registry title plan.

Sarah Aikenhead, a legal secretary at Maddocks Clarke in Altrincham, was dismissed for gross misconduct in September 2019 after it discovered that she had stolen money from the firm’s client account.

In October 2020, she pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud by abuse of position. She was sentenced to 40 months imprisonment.

Alan Edwards was a litigation executive at Liverpool firm Emerald Law. While representing two minors in their personal injury claims, he changed without permission the edition of the Judicial Guidelines and the date of counsel’s advice on quantum (AOQ) for one of the minors which was used in an infant approval hearing.

He also created new AOQs, using the contents of counsel’s AOQs and the name of the firm’s manager, without authorisation.

Further, Mr Edwards failed to take reasonable steps to rectify the payment of one of his client’s settlement money, which had been paid to another instead of into court, and made false statements about this to the court and to the defendant’s solicitors.

He was ordered to pay a fine of £1,000 in addition to the ban.

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