Law firm administrator claimed £1,450 for office tea and coffee

Tea and coffee: Would not have cost £1,450

A law firm administrator who paid herself £1,450 using pre-signed cheques, which she claimed was to refund money she had spent on office tea and coffee, has been barred from the profession.

Jacqueline Tunstall has been made subject to an order under section 43 of the Solicitors Act, which means she cannot work for a firm regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) without its permission.

A notice published by the SRA said Ms Tunstall was the office administration manager at Sunderland firm McKenzie Bell, where she had worked for more than 30 years and was a trusted employee under minimal supervision.

As part of her role, she was responsible for managing the firm’s accounts, reporting directly into the four directors, arranging for petty cash to be posted between the firm’s two offices, submitting employee timesheets and overtime claims, and arranging other necessary payments from office account.

Ms Tunstall made seven pre-signed office cheques payable to herself between 10 October 2022 and 12 January 2023, totalling £1,450.

She said she did this to refund office expenses, such as tea, coffee, milk and sugar, which she had incurred personally.

The SRA said: “Ms Tunstall has stated that she did not retain receipts for these expenses and, in addition, did not inform the directors that she was incurring the expenses or that she was reimbursing herself using the cheques.”

It continued: “It was not expected for employees to incur office expenses personally. Should this occur, the usual process was for the employee to provide a receipt to Ms Tunstall for the relevant expense, then Ms Tunstall would arrange for a refund via bank transfer from the office account. Ms Tunstall had sole responsibility for arranging such refunds in these circumstances.

“It was also common practice at the Sunderland office, where Ms Tunstall was based, for employees to bring in their own refreshments.

Even if this was not the case, the size of the Sunderland office would not warrant such high expenditure on these items. In any event, the firm expected such items to be purchased using the petty cash and a record to be kept of all expenditure.”

This was the procedure followed at the Washington office, as Ms Tunstall knew.

The cheques were only to be used when an emergency expense arose and the directors were not available to arrange for payment directly from the office account.

Ms Tunstall accepted that she dishonestly misappropriated the money, knowing use of the cheques in this way was not permitted, and that as a result it was “undesirable for her to be involved in a legal practice”.

The SRA said that, by way of mitigation, Ms Tunstall had “shown remorse for her actions and offered to remedy the harm by way of repayment plan to the firm”.

In imposing the section 43 order, the SRA said: “Given her lengthy experience working in the accounts department at a law firm, should Ms Tunstall obtain employment in the future there is a high chance it will be in a role of the same nature.

“Based on her conduct, Ms Tunstall has demonstrated that she is not a trustworthy individual to hold such a role… We hold non-authorised individuals working in the legal profession to the same higher standards expected of solicitors.”

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