A law firm co-owner who covered up the existence of a bank account he used for the proceeds of a conveyancing transaction – from both his partner and regulator – has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Alvin Gilbert Just “consciously attempted to put the funds outside of the normal regulatory remit” of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
It said Mr Just was “motivated by his desire to cover up the existence” of the bank account, known as ‘Account F’, so that it would not be disclosed to the SRA and he could maintain his position that he had not acted for ‘Client A’ when he knew that he had.
Mr Just, qualified in 2008, and Devon Anthony Brown (1999) set up North London firm Just & Brown Solicitors in December 2012. It closed in 2018. Mr Just was the COLP and Mr Brown the COFA.
At the time of the events in question, the firm had told the SRA that it did not handle conveyancing work and did not hold client money or operate a client account.
The SDT heard that Just and Brown Solicitors Ltd was also incorporated in December 2012. This company was not authorised by the SRA. Mr Just was the sole director and also sole signatory on its bank account, Account F. Its existence only came to light during the SRA’s investigation.
Though the company was dissolved in 2016, it was restored by order of the court in 2019 after an application by Client A, so she could bring proceedings against it.
Client A instructed the firm in 2014 to deal with the administration of her late partner Mr G’s estate. She complained to the SRA that the firm acted on the sale of Property B for £350,000 as part of that but she had only received £156,000 of the proceeds.
Mr Just told the SRA that it had actually been a former unqualified work colleague who had done the work for Client A and that he had just “fronted” it.
He argued that Client A was not a client and that the monies received from any sale were received in his capacity as a trustee, rather than a solicitor, were thus not monies the SRA could regulate.
The SDT found it was clear that Mr Just had acted for Client A in his capacity as a solicitor and that he not merely fronted the transaction. To the extent that anyone other than Client A was appointed in the will as a trustee, it was the firm and not him in any personal capacity.
Mr Just failed to keep or pay the monies in an identifiable client account; rather he mixed them with his own money in Account F and used it to pay for everyday personal expenses. This breached multiple accounts rules.
Though he also failed to account to Client A for the monies received, the SDT did not uphold an allegation that Mr Just had misappropriated or otherwise misused them.
The SRA had not been able to quantify exactly what Client A was due, in part because her evidence had varied, while she did not attend the hearing, meaning Mr Just did not have a chance to cross-examine her.
The SRA “had failed to prove that the payments Mr Just described as being made to or on behalf of Client A, had in fact not been made on her instructions”. Nor had the SRA proved that an agreement Mr Just said he reached with Client A that he would pay for repairs to the property and keep a proportion of the proceeds did not exist.
The SDT went on to find that Mr Just had not only failed to co-operate with the SRA but “knowingly and deliberately lied and misled” it, such as by denying he had acted for Client A.
There were further allegations found proven over breaches of one undertaking to preserve another firm’s lien over its costs – although this was due to a genuine error on Mr Just’s part – and a second to discharge a charge on a property before completion. Both have since been remedied, Mr Just told the tribunal.
In addition, Mr Just sent “inappropriate” communications to his opponent and their client in a contested probate case, although the SDT did not find them offensive and/or threatening, as had been alleged.
The SDT said Mr Just had responded “in the context of extremely hostile litigation” where his opponent had been “aggressive in his pursuit of Mr Just”.
But in seeking to defend himself against what he considered to be malicious allegations, Mr Just “had expressed his frustration and annoyance in a manner that was inappropriate”.
Deciding to strike him off, the SDT noted that “on each of the allegations found proved, Mr Just’s version of events was changeable”.
It went on: “The tribunal considered that he was also motivated by self-preservation and his actions were, in some circumstances, an attempt by him to conceal his misconduct…
“Account F had been opened by him as the sole signatory and were used by him in order to manage the monies received. He deliberately gave the minimum amount of information that he could in order to block, divert or obfuscate the SRA in its investigation.
“He had acted in breach of the trust placed in him by the public to operate proper stewardship of client monies.”
His conduct was “aggravated by his proven and blatant dishonesty”, it added.
The SDT found Mr Brown failed to carry out his regulatory obligations as the COFA: “He seemingly had no knowledge of the existence of Account F. He had failed to undertake his role with due diligence and had failed to protect client monies and assets.
“As the COFA, he should have ensured that the firm operated a client account.” He had believed Mr Just when he said the firm did not need one.
He was ordered to pay a fine of £2,000 and costs of £400. Mr Just – who was declared bankrupt in 2018 – was ordered to pay costs of nearly £42,000.