A Lancashire solicitor has been struck off after misusing more than £400,000 of client monies to prop up her ailing firm.
Kimberley Bridge was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) this week for nine counts of dishonesty.
The SDT also ordered that Ms Bridge’s sister, Nicola Roach, who worked at the firm, SFN Solicitors in Burnley, as a clerk, be barred from working in a law firm without permission from the relevant authorities through a section 43 order for four counts of dishonesty.
The tribunal also considered SFN Solicitors’ other partners, John Charles McNabb and Tracy Stansfield. They were respectively fined £2,000 and reprimanded.
The tribunal found 19 allegations proven against Ms Bridge, including failing to act in the best interests of clients, failing to act with integrity and making improper withdrawals from the client account.
It also found 10 similar allegations proven against Ms Roach, while Mr McNabb and Mrs Stansfield also had 10 allegations against them found proven after failing to, among other breaches, protect client money and assets.
The tribunal heard that SFN Solicitors already had a shortfall on its client account of £186,000 by November 2011 because of Ms Bridge’s actions. She tried to conceal this shortfall by creating a fictitious property sale, then claiming she was taking the lender to court for failing to send through the mortgage money.
By August 2012, there were £714,000 of payments that had not been allocated to the correct clients in the ledger. It was discovered that £232,000 of this had been paid into Ms Bridge’s personal account. The SRA eventually discovered a shortage of £418,000 resulting from a number of improper transactions, including a payment of £27,000 from the client account to pay council tax on a property the firm owned.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) closed down SFN Solicitors in January 2013. As well as striking Ms Bridge from the roll, the SDT ordered her to pay costs of £31,947.85 jointly with Ms Roach. Mr McNabb and Mrs Stansfield were ordered to pay £8,420 costs each.
In passing the sanctions, the SDT said: “This is a very sad but disturbing case. Mrs Bridge and Ms Roach deliberately and systematically defrauded everyone around them, including Mr McNabb and Mrs Stansfield. Neither Mr McNabb nor Mrs Stansfield derived benefit, and indeed suffered enormous loss.
“Mr McNabb was a senior solicitor. He was present throughout the last year and perhaps could have done more. We believe a £10,000 fine is appropriate, but given his means, have decided to fine him £2,000.
“Mrs Stansfield suffered from health problems. She made significant attempts to take advice. She has been declared bankrupt. However, she was a partner, and that is reflected in her admissions.”
Gordon Ramsay, SRA director for legal and enforcement, said: “In Mrs Bridge’s case, she misused significant sums of clients’ money that had been entrusted to her. The consequences for these clients could have been devastating. Striking her off was clearly appropriate, as is the order banning Ms Roach from working in a solicitors’ firm without permission.”
All four have 21 days from the SDT’s publication of its judgment to appeal