The case of a solicitor who was manifestly incompetent in handling a conveyancing transaction is “a warning to the profession” of stepping beyond their expertise, a tribunal has said.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said the £42,5000 deposit transferred by Syed Imran Raza Rizvi to an unconnected third party in Singapore was never returned and the purchaser had to wait for over a year for a refund from his indemnity insurer.
The SDT fined him £15,000. It described Mr Rizvi, principal of Liberty Law UK in Manchester, as an “inexperienced conveyancer”, having qualified in 2013 after taking the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Test. He was 54 at the time of the misconduct.
Liberty Law was instructed by “an individual purporting to be Mr SB” in November 2019 to sell a property in London for £425,000.
The firm’s indemnity insurance renewal proposal form for that year stated that it did not undertake conveyancing work; neither did it appear on the firm’s anti-money laundering checklist.
The SDT said Mr Rizvi’s case was “a warning to the profession of the dangers of a solicitor stepping outside the area of his or her expertise without first obtaining the necessary experience to discharge their professional duty with competence”.
It went on: “It also opened the solicitor to the risk of being used as an unwitting instrument to facilitate fraud or other associated criminal activity.”
In an agreed outcome with Mr Rizvi, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) explained that Mr SB attended Liberty Law’s offices in person and provided a passport and two utility bills – although these were final bills and so suggested Mr SB had vacated the property, no alternative address was recorded.
The firm’s file note also did not explain why Mr SB was instructing a firm in Manchester, which did not usually undertake conveyancing, on the sale of a property in London.
Later in the month, there was a conditional exchange of contracts on Mr SB’s property.
The purchaser transferred the deposit to Liberty Law’s client account to hold as stakeholder, but on Mr SB’s instructions and without the purchaser’s consent, Mr Rizvi paid it on to an unconnected third party in Singapore, ‘KS’, described as a “media file creation house” with no discernible links to the UK.
SB said the money was to go towards a proposed purchase in London, but Liberty Law was not instructed on it.
“The client file did not identify who KS was or how they were related to the proposed purchase,” the SRA added.
Shortly after exchange, the purchaser rescinded the contract on the grounds of potential vendor fraud – it suspected that the property had been hijacked – and requested its return.
Mr Rizvi gave an undertaking that it would be repaid within two or three days, but the money had still not repaid the money when it closed in January 2021. The SRA said the purchaser’s claim has since been settled by the firm’s insurer.
Mr Rizvi admitted making an “inappropriate payment”, causing or allowing the firm’s client account to be used as a banking facility, and breaching a written undertaking. He also admitted manifest incompetence.
In mitigation, he argued that he was “both permitted and obligated” to comply with Mr SB’s instruction to transfer the deposit and he did not consider “any effective loss to have been suffered” as his insurer had made it good.
He said the firm had a serviced office in London, which was why Mr SB had approached it, but the client then travelled to Manchester after Mr Rizvi told him “there were not yet sufficient clients in London to make it worth [the solicitor’s] time to travel down for an initial meeting”.
The tribunal fined Mr Rizvi £15,000, saying it was “prepared to accept that this had been an isolated incident which was unlikely to be repeated”.
It also imposed conditions on his practising certificate preventing him from being a law firm compliance officer. He was also ordered to pay £14,500 in costs.