SDT lifts restriction on law firm owner after closure warning

SDT: Solicitor had shown insight into misconduct

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has removed a condition on the practising certificate of the owner of a legal aid law firm after he warned that it could force the firm to close.

Mladen Kesar, who was barred from being the firm’s COLP/COFA, said that if the firm had to close because it could not find a compliance officer, 20 members of staff would lose their jobs.

Mr Kesar, founder and sole owner of south London firm Kesar & Co, was fined £6,000 for mismanaging legal aid funds last November, and banned from being a COLP or COFA.

He was previously COLP of his law firm, a predominantly legal aid practice, and practice manager Elizabeth Hill was the COFA. She was fined too.

That tribunal found they were “honourably motivated but their aspirations fell far short of what they delivered” and they had taken “a cavalier approach” to running a law firm.

The latest tribunal said Mr Kesar’s application was made “on the basis that the current COLP/COFA has resigned and finding a replacement had proved extremely difficult”.

The SDT went on: “It had taken six months to appoint the current compliance officer. It was not anticipated that she would remain given that she was newly qualified and was likely to leave the firm to obtain more lucrative work.

“Mr Kesar submitted that in the event that the firm was forced to close as it was without a compliance officer, 20 members of staff would lose their jobs, and the firm’s almost one thousand clients would have to seek alternative representation.”

At his tribunal hearing last year, the law firm owner and his practice manager were found to have categorised bulk payments from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), a mixture of the firm’s fees and disbursements due to third parties, as client money.

Mr Kesar was found to have failed to pay professional disbursements or transfer money for them into the firm’s client account and to have misused money he received from the LAA for disbursements. Both failures were breaches of the Solicitors Account Rules 2011.

However, Mr Kesar argued that they would not have been breaches under the revised 2019 rules, which the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) acknowledged.

The regulator said “any risk being addressed by the current condition regarding the duties of a COFA was adequately addressed by Mr Kesar putting in place three firms of accountants” to deal with the firm’s finances.

“One of these bodies alerts the firm of any errors or improprieties. Although this did not address COLP responsibilities, it was the financial management of the firm that was lacking.”

The tribunal said Mr Kesar, who was invited to attend by the SDT and attended in person despite the fact his application was dealt with on the papers, took “what happened very seriously and was very sorry for the misconduct”. He had attended accounts rules courses.

It said the “key consideration” was whether the condition imposed remained necessary in order to protect the public and the reputation of the profession.

Given that the actions would not now amount to misconduct, and Mr Kesar had demonstrated insight “both at the time and now”, the SDT granted his application to remove the condition.

Mr Kesar was ordered to undertake, within the next 12 months, an update course on the accounts rules and a course on the roles and responsibilities of a compliance officer.

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