A partner has been struck off after forging a divorce client’s decree absolute, and misappropriating more than £200,000 from clients to hide his inactivity on other matters.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that Noel William Pugsley’s motivation was “absolutely not personal financial gain. It was… to conceal his professional failings in respect of other clients”.
The tribunal described it as “a sad case” in which Mr Pugsley had struggled with work pressures as well as personal and medical issues.
Mr Pugsley, who was born in 1973 and qualified in 1999, was one of two partners at the Guisborough branch office of Middlesbrough firm Askew Bunting, where he specialised in wills and probate work.
The tribunal found – and Mr Pugsley admitted – that he had misappropriated £203,785 from four clients, transferring the money to other clients and telling them he had recovered it for them on their matters.
In addition, a client had asked Mr Pugsley to undertake her divorce, even though it was not his area of expertise, and it emerged that he had created the decree absolute he sent her and that the application for divorce had not in fact been completed. He told the Solicitors Regulation Authority that things had gone wrong and he panicked. The mistake was discovered before it caused the couple a problem.
The tribunal found that Mr Pugsley had acted dishonestly in respect to all five allegations he faced.
In mitigation, the solicitor, who became a salaried partner in 2006 and an equity partner in 2009, said his difficulties began around 2011-2012, when he began to see an increase in his workload to “overwhelming levels”.
The SDT recorded: “He explained that the firm was coming through the credit crunch and there was pressure to increase turnover. The respondent took an active role in establishing new work streams which was both time-consuming and demanding.
“In 2011 one of the partners left the firm and following that departure the respondent took on many of the roles which had previously been exercised by the departing partner. The respondent took on an increasing amount of managerial responsibilities from this point onwards.
“As the firm recovered from the credit crunch there was a rapid growth in the area of conveyancing work. The respondent was heavily involved in the recruitment of new fee-earners and support staff and the oversight of their work. The respondent also explained that he became the member of staff who would deal with unusual or difficult cases. He was largely responsible for overseeing the running of the branch office, including a relocation in 2011.
“The respondent felt that he became overwhelmed by work and lost the ability to work in a rational manner. It was in this context that the matters giving rise to the allegations had occurred.”
Mr Pugsley told the tribunal that he retired from the partnership on the basis that he would receive no further payments. He has previously owned a one-third equity share in the business and he waived his capital payment so that it could be put towards the client account deficit
He was declared bankrupt in May 2015 and was currently unemployed.
The SDT concluded: “The misconduct had been deliberate, calculated and repeated. It had continued for over a year and steps had been taken to conceal it during that time…
“This departure from his usual standards, although over a period of time, was nevertheless out of character. The tribunal found his insight and remorse to be genuine and this was reflected in his co-operation with the SRA and his early and comprehensive admissions.”
Nonetheless, the misconduct was “at the highest level and the only appropriate sanction was a strike-off”. He was also ordered to pay £10,417 in costs.
Meanwhile, a wills and probate solicitor who took £13,229 from clients and was imprisoned for 20 months as a result has also been struck off.
Stephen William Climo admitted to and was convicted of one count of fraud by false representation, three counts of fraud by abuse of position, and one count of theft as a result of his actions as a solicitor at Worcestershire firm Gaynor-Smith & Owen.
Mr Climo was born in 1964 and admitted in 2000. He acknowledged that he should not be allowed to practice any longer, and “wholly and unreservedly apologised for his conduct”. He said he was unable to explain his conduct or the reasoning behind it.