A solicitor who said his role was as his firm’s “figurehead”, like the Queen – and underestimated his wife’s work in running its accounts – has been struck off over improper withdrawals from client accounts.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that Mr Mohammed made 24 improper withdrawals totalling over £216,000 in one year, with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) breathing down his neck. Some of it was belatedly made good.
Mr Mohammed, a recognised sole practitioner at Mohammed & Co in Preston, said he appeared at the tribunal “as a figurehead”, and “his wife was the lynchpin and when she became ill things went downhill without her”.
The SDT said: “The respondent said that he was probably like the Queen, the head of state, not running the government. The way his wife ran it, it was that smooth.”
However, the SDT said that Mr Mohammed’s dishonesty was motivated by self-interest “as he was the only beneficiary from the costs taken” and the dishonesty “had not been a one-off incident but a systematic course of conduct”.
It went on: “[He] had direct control of and responsibility for the circumstances giving rise to the misconduct: he owned the firm and was the only signatory to client and office accounts.
“He said on numerous occasions giving evidence that the buck stopped with him. He had been his firm’s COFA, which emphasised his personal culpability in addition to his failure to live up to the trustworthiness he was expected to display as a solicitor. He was a very experienced solicitor of 26 years.”
Mr Mohammed was born in 1960 and admitted in 1988. An accountant’s report on Mohammed & Co sent to the SRA in February 2015 identified 16 breaches of the accounts rules.
The following month the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) launched an investigation which estimated the value of improper withdrawals at over £216,000.
The SDT said Mr Mohammed accepted that a “considerable number” of the withdrawals were improper, but “denied that he was personally at fault” while saying that “the buck” rested with him.
The SDT found that 24 improper withdrawals were made in 2014, breaching the accounts rules and lacking integrity.
Eight of the transfers were in respect of costs totalling over £72,000, when no bill of costs had been produced. In six of these cases, the tribunal found Mr Mohammed had acted dishonestly.
He knew that, in his wife’s absence, “the office systems were not working as they should”, and he was acting without the financial control information which his wife would normally provide.
“As to whether ordinary decent people would consider the respondent’s actions to be dishonest, it was not necessary for the tribunal to determine the respondent’s motives for making the six transfers but it was clear the firm had had tax issues since 2006; the evidence the respondent produced showed recurring VAT penalties.
“The tribunal determined that the timing of the composite transfers and the HMRC action reaching a peak, with bankruptcy proceedings on foot and monies also owing to HMRC outside those proceedings was too coincidental to be unrelated.”
The SDT recorded Mr Mohammed’s admission that, after his wife became ill and other accounts staff and fee-earners were absent, “he did not get to grips with the situation when he should have done”.
A “particularly stark example” was four payments made to a client, Mr A, where the solicitor relied on Mr A’s word alone based on their longstanding relationship. “He admitted that he did not check the ledger and that the improper withdrawals were his fault.”
The SDT continued: “As a result the client account was over drawn for 133 days. This meant that other clients’ money had been used to pay Mr A. The tribunal considered that the respondent had been so reckless as to constitute behaving with lack of integrity in respect of payments to Mr A.”
Mr Mohammed was found by the tribunal to have failed to remedy breaches of the accounts rules and failed to keep accounting records properly written up – both allegations which he admitted. He also admitted failing to carry out bank reconciliations throughout 2014.
The SDT said Mr Mohammed frequently said when giving evidence that “the buck stopped with him”, but that did not stop him “seeking to attribute blame and dishonesty to many others”.
The tribunal accepted that the solicitor’s misconduct happened at a time when he had just lost his father and his wife had “very serious health issues”.
However, a solicitor was expected to behave with honesty and integrity “whatever their personal difficulties”.
He was ordered to pay £55,000 in costs.