High Court rejects solicitor’s appeal against strike-off

Cheque: SDT entitled to draw inferences it did

The High Court has rejected an appeal from a solicitor struck off for persuading a vulnerable client to pay £4,700 into her personal bank account.

It said the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) was entitled to reject Vidal Eulalie Martin’s evidence “as lacking in credibility”.

Earlier this year, the SDT rejected Ms Martin’s version of events, in which the cheque was written and paid into her account and spent “entirely unbeknownst to her”.

The SDT said Ms Martin’s motivation in requesting the money was “personal enrichment” and she later made misleading statements to an investigation officer from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). She was struck off and ordered to pay £47,500 in costs.

In a joint ruling, Lady Justice Simler and Mr Justice Picken said it was open to the tribunal “to draw the inference it did”, including that her account was “contrived to obscure her own conduct in relation to the cheque”.

The judge said it “inevitably followed” that the tribunal found the allegation that Ms Martin made false and/or misleading representations to the SRA’s investigation officer to have been proved.

Ms Martin told the SRA that the bank account mentioned “was not and never had been hers, or words to that effect” and that the Nationwide Building Society had informed her that “the cheque had been returned, or words to that effect”.

The court said the SDT was entitled to find that Nationwide did not tell her this.

“There is no basis for concluding that the tribunal misunderstood the factual basis of this allegation. To the contrary, it is clear from the findings made that there was no misunderstanding.”

The High Court heard in Martin v SRA [2020] EWHC 3525 (Admin) that Ms Martin was a solicitor for Bright and Sons solicitors in Witham, Essex, at the time of the offences in 2010 and 2011.

Her main area of work was dealing with probate and estate administration. She left Bright and Sons in 2015 and started a new firm as a sole practitioner and notary at V Martin Legal Services in Romford.

The COLP of Bright and Sons complained to the SRA in November 2015. His report “set out various concerns about Ms Martin’s handling of some matters while at the firm”.

The court said that, following the death of Ms M, her residuary estate was left to her niece, Ms X. Ms Martin was the fee-earner responsible for dealing with the estate, which required the sale of Ms M’s house during 2010 and 2011.

Ms Martin inspected a burst water tank at the house with Ms X in January 2011, after which Ms X went to the offices of Bright and Sons and, according to the SRA, wrote a cheque in favour of Ms Martin in the sum of £4,700.

The court went on: “Ms X’s evidence was that she wrote the cheque in response to Ms Martin’s request for funds to repair the damage to the property.

“However, no such repairs were in fact undertaken before the sale of the property and the estate accounts made no reference to the cost of repairs at the property.”

The court said Ms Martin challenged the tribunal’s ruling on a number of grounds, including that it had erred “in its approach to, and conclusions in respect of, Ms X’s evidence”.

The judges said that “in cases where findings of fact depend upon disputed oral evidence and/or an assessment of witness evidence that conflicts”, it was “well established that appellate courts should be reluctant to interfere”.

The court also dismissed Ms Martin’s appeal against the costs order.

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