A solicitor who lied to various clients about the progress of their matters caused so many claims against his firm that it had to close because of rising indemnity insurance premiums.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) struck off Richard Michael Cohen after he admitted dishonesty, with one former client saying his actions had “destroyed” her life.
An agreed outcome approved by the tribunal said his conduct adversely affected the firm and resulted in civil claims.
“The firm’s indemnity insurance increased to the extent that it was no longer financially viable to continue operating and was the primary reason for the firm’s closure.”
Mr Cohen, who qualified in 1998, was a partner at Essex firm Rudds and held all of its compliance roles. He admitted to misconduct over four matters.
In the first, he misled a client over seven months into thinking that he was pursuing an injunction in a dispute over a garden when he was not. This led to a negligence action.
When questioned by another partner in the wake of complaints from the client, Mr Cohen said: “Frankly I have got myself into a muddle with this one.”
In the second, which lasted for two and a half years, he misled two clients about his work to obtain a lease extension on their behalf, including providing them with a “tribunal-approved version” of it, when there had not actually been any tribunal proceedings.
This too led to a claim against the firm, which it settled.
In the third matter, he misled a client over 18 months on the progress of obtaining a grant of probate on her mother’s estate, when he had not applied for it.
This client has taken legal action against the firm as well. The SRA said: “She sets out in her witness evidence that the respondent’s mishandling of her mother’s estate has led to her being ostracised by her family who believed she had appropriated the proceeds from the same; she complains of stress and the breakdown of her marriage as a result. She states that the respondent ‘destroyed my life’.”
Mr Cohen admitted acting dishonestly on the first two and recklessly on the third; in the circumstances, the SRA said it was not worth seeking a tribunal finding of dishonesty in this.
There was a fourth matter, when Mr Cohen was selling a property during the administration of the estate, in which he failed to contact the testator’s ex-wife about the sale of the property she owned jointly.
He failed to obtain her agreement to and signature on the transfer document and failed to carry out due diligence to identify the person who signed the transfer documentation representing themselves as the ex-wife.
The SDT recorded that, following concerns raised in respect of Mr Cohen’s handling of the first matter, the firm urged him to resign from the partnership. He did so in January 2020. The firm closed on 31 October 2022.
Mr Cohen said in mitigation – which was not agreed by the SRA – that the last few years of employment at Rudds was “a very difficult time” for various reasons, and that staffing issues meant he took on matters that he should not have had to do.
He was a conveyancer but was also handling litigation and probate files.
He said he had a young family at home and his financial position was “uncertain from month to month”.
His actions were attempts “to buy time” – all the cases “were being worked on in some way in a hope to progress them to the position they should have been in”.
There was no deliberate intention to be dishonest, Mr Cohen claimed, and “no client was charged for any suggested work undertaken”.
The SDT said Mr Cohen accepted that he knew he had made untrue and misleading statements to clients on the progress of their matters.
“These untruths were substantial and significant in nature. This very serious misconduct was made more egregious by the fact that he occupied the role of the firm’s COLP and COFA and he would have been trusted not only by his clients not to mislead them but also by his firm to ensure that all systems, safeguards, rules and regulations were in place and were being followed.”
Mr Cohen was ordered to pay costs of £18,000.