A solicitor has been struck off for the second time and ordered to pay costs of almost £66,000 after dishonestly misleading mortgage lenders in order to service clients of a firm which was barred from lenders’ panels.
Naresh Kumar Chopra was also found by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) to have allowed his client account to have been used as a banking facility to lend credibility to dubious transactions involving diamonds and fine art. But it declined to rule he had done this dishonestly.
Other charges also found proven but not to have involved dishonesty included conflict of interest in relation to property transactions and client account rule breaches.
Mr Chopra was born in 1959 and admitted as a solicitor in 1984. He was struck off by the SDT in 1993 after being convicted in the High Court for contempt of court in the course of his practice as a solicitor and destroying or altering documents relating to an alleged mortgage fraud.
His practising certificate was restored in 2004, with conditions attached.
The proceedings concerned his activities when a manager and compliance officer at Ilford-based Nationwide Solicitors (trading as Daybells Solicitors) and simultaneously a manager of nearby Dagenham firm Lillywhite Williams. Under an agreement, Mr Chopra took over Lillywhite’s conveyancing department in 2013 and had a controlling interest in the practice.
The solicitor was found by the tribunal to have dishonestly allowed at least nine conveyancing transactions to be undertaken by the firms in breach of practising rules and had misled lenders as to which firm undertook the transactions.
The tribunal recorded that the conduct was designed deliberately “to deceive lenders who thought the work was being carried out by Lillywhite Williams which was on their respective panels. The reality was that work was being carried out by the respondent and staff at Nationwide, which was not”.
It concluded Mr Chopra had “deliberately used Lillywhite Williams to allow him to service those clients knowing full well that Nationwide was unable to do the work”.
He had then “given various elaborate, often contradictory, excuses during the course of his evidence as to why he had acted as he had but the tribunal [found] they were implausible and were not credible”.
Allegations that he had provided escrow banking facilities through a client account in relation to dubious diamond and fine art transactions were admitted.
It was further alleged that purchasers and investors were not aware that fees were being charged and deducted.
The prosecution noted this type of transaction was notoriously associated with fraud.
The tribunal “had no doubt that the respondent’s involvement in these transactions lent a veneer of respectability to them” and noted that he had charged brokers around £200 in fees for each transaction. It was satisfied he had acted with a lack of integrity.
But it did not find the allegation of dishonesty proved as his involvement was limited, adding: “The respondent was not a participant in the actual scam transactions but had simply allowed his client account to be used to facilitate them.”
Separately, the tribunal accepted Mr Chopra had not acted dishonestly in relation to a further admitted allegation – that he had acted in circumstances where there was a conflict, or a risk of conflict, between him and various clients.
It also accepted dishonesty was not proven in two admitted allegations of accounts rules breaches. One involved withdrawing over £500,000 in relation to seven transactions from a client account for purposes other than payment on behalf of the client, and without obtaining the clients’ written instructions.
In mitigation, Mr Chopra submitted that the Solicitors Regulation Authority was unhappy that he had been restored to the roll in 2004 and consequently “a number of allegations of dishonesty had been made without any merit”. He argued that the regulator was trying to make him bankrupt.
At the time of the intervention, Nationwide had taken over both Daybells Solicitors and Lillywhite Williams, and all three had a combined turnover of £2.5m.
However, the tribunal concluded that the solicitor’s culpability was high and his misconduct in misleading the lenders had been “repeated… deliberate and calculated”.
It added “He had shown a complete disregard for the Solicitors Accounts Rules 2011 by moving client funds around in an improper manner on numerous occasions.”
Further, the tribunal “was not satisfied he had demonstrated genuine insight or remorse.”
Overall the case was too serious for lesser sanctions. Because the dishonesty was “at the higher level” and Mr Chopra’s “conduct exhibited a complete disregard of his obligations as a solicitor and the rules that were in place to protect the public”, suspension was insufficient.
He had “already been given a second opportunity” after being struck off the first time, and striking off again was the appropriate sanction.
With costs aggravated by late admissions and a failure to provide a witness statement, “together with his evasive and contradictory answers when giving his evidence”, he was also ordered to pay costs of £65,977.