A former partner at listed law firm Gateley has been suspended for a year after accepting a £2,500 cash gift from a client and later asking the client for an introduction fee.
While the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) argued that Dean Trent Copley had sought the fee for himself, Mr Copley insisted that Gateley would have received it – even though he sent the request from his personal email account.
But the solicitor – who lost his job as a result of the events – accepted that the wording of the e-mail could be seen as him seeking it for himself.
In a statement of agreed facts and outcome, he and the SRA told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that – given the sanction they had agreed – it was not necessary to resolve this dispute. The tribunal accepted this.
Mr Copley qualified in 1988. He joined Gateley in 2010 and became a director in May 2015, just a month before it became the first law firm in the UK to float.
In 2018, Gateley learned that, back in early 2016, a property developer client, ‘Company A’, made a gift of £2,500 to Mr Copley, paid into his personal bank account.
In December that year, he emailed Company A from his personal email account to point out that it was onto a third deal with another developer, Company B, which had been introduced by Mr Copley.
The email said: “No mention has yet been made of any benefit to me for having created that introduction and to date I have held back from raising it or asking for a ‘formal’ fee arrangement…
“I’m sure that it has only slipped your mind but on the basis that these schemes… will be very profitable and ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ I would like to bottom this sooner rather than later please. This is how I work with [two directors at Company B] on deals I have put them into.”
The firm investigated and in March 2018, finding Mr Copley in breach of its bribery and corruption code of conduct, terminated his contract with immediate effect and referred him to the SRA.
The SRA noted that the Gateley code was clear and the firm had provided training on it. Partners were required to keep records of all gifts/hospitality received over a value of £250, with any item above that requiring authorisation by the unit head and items over £500 by the financial controller.
Mr Copley did neither. He said he was not aware at the time he accepted the £2,500 that it was in breach of the code – and he said he donated it to charity – but accepted that he should have known.
He accepted too that he lacked integrity in accepting the money and had damaged trust in the profession.
He argued that the e-mail was an attempt to arrange an introductory fee for the firm, not himself.
The SRA did not accept this. It found Mr Copley’s explanations for using his personal e-mail address lacking in credibility, “involving, as they do, (i) concerns that the response may involve the use of bad language; and/or (ii) concerns that he would be embarrassed if the response was a negative one”.
Further, it noted that the email did not refer to any payment being made to the firm; the only reference to Gateley at all was to say he would use his work email account to respond on some substantive legal issues.
“Nothing in this e-mail reads as though the respondent is seeking to acquire an additional payment for the benefit of his employer,” the SRA said.
Mr Copley maintained that he sent the email in an attempt to secure “an enhanced or further fee” for Gateley.
“However, he accepts that wording of the e-mail, when viewed objectively, could be seen as him seeking a financial benefit for himself. On this basis, the respondent accepts that the sending of this e-mail constituted a breach of [the principle that he uphold trust in the profession].
Given the parties had agreed on a 12-month suspension, they said it was unlikely that any resolution of the dispute would “materially” affect the sanction. Doing so would be neither proportionate nor in the public interest.
In non-agreed mitigation, Mr Copley said the allegations concerned “a single incident and an isolated error”.
He had an otherwise unblemished record, while “in circumstances in which this matter has been hanging over Mr Copley since 2018, Mr Copley has already suffered enormously as a result of his error, including having lost his job. Personally, he has also been very significantly impacted by these events”.
Imposing the suspension, the SDT said a solicitor of Mr Copley’s experience “should have been well acquainted with the rules regarding the acceptance of gifts”.
It went on: “There had been an element of concealment with respect to the gift and also evidence of some pre-planning on his part with respect to the e-mail sent in December 2016, appearing to be an attempt by the respondent to elicit further payment from one of his employer’s clients.
“The tribunal considered that the public are entitled to expect that members of the legal profession handle gifts from clients in accordance with any internal policies created by their employer.
“To do otherwise threatens the confidence and trust the public places in solicitors to handle their funds.”