A solicitor who lost sight of who was her client and whose actions in a conveyancing transaction were described as “slapdash” has been fined £10,000.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Ajijun Maya Ali failed to properly advise a 20-year-old client about a lease, leaving him “exposed to financial liabilities under the lease which he was unable to meet”.
Approving an agreed outcome between Ms Ali and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the SDT said the public relied on conveyancers to “get the details right and exercise ‘eagle-eyed’ vigilance” over the whole transaction.
“Contrary to this basic expectation [her] actions were ‘slap-dash’. [She] also seemed to have lost sight of who was her client.”
Ms Ali, principal of Coventry firm Maya & Co, acted for Client A between February and March 2015 in relation to the assignment of a commercial lease for the remainder of its 25-year term.
The property was owned by the local authority and subject to a 25-year lease running from 2013 in favour of Person B, who was not represented by a lawyer, “apparently preferring to save on legal expenses”.
Client A, aged 20, was an apprentice at a car repair shop. Person B, a “frequent customer” developed “what Client A believed to be” a friendship with him.
Client A said that, in February 2015, Person B “advised him that he was expanding his business but was having a few difficulties and needed someone to sign some papers to rent a commercial property” for a couple of weeks.
Assignment of the lease was completed the following month, but according to Client A “he did not understand that he had taken on legal responsibility for the lease and had been duped by Person B”.
The SRA said a solicitor carrying out a transaction for such an inexperienced client was “not justified” in expressing no opinion when “it is plain that the client is rushing into an unwise, not to say potentially disastrous adventure”.
Ms Ali admitted failing to advise Client A adequately and carry out due diligence in respect of the lease, Person B’s identity and the source of funds received by the firm from him.
The council pursued Client A for outstanding business rates, which it had warned Ms Ali about, the lease was forfeited and Client A’s parents reached a settlement with the council.
The SRA said it was “likely that that the lease in question was never registered and that the property was unregistered land” – but as the lease was for a term of more than seven years, it was required to be registered. There was a TR1 on the file, for the transfer of a registered titles, signed by Person B.
Ms Ali said she did not verify Person B’s identity as he was not a client. However, she was required to confirm the identity of Person B to the Land Registry and she also received £3,644 in cash from him and paid it on to the council to discharge his obligations under the lease.
The regulator said there was “no evidence on the client file of any advice, either written (e.g. a report on title) or verbal (e.g. an attendance note) having been provided” to Client A. Ms Ali said she gave him an “oral explanation”.
Separately, Ms Ali also admitted that, between 2015 and 2016, having taken over from another firm the conduct of litigation relating to the recovery of funds in a failed property development, she acted for eight clients without “written or verified instruction”.
She accepted on the word of one of the clients and their former solicitor, who had been suspended for unrelated reasons, that they were authorised to provide instructions on behalf of the group, including how the £90,000 settlement money and £34,000 in costs should be distributed.
The SRA said that the clients were the victims of an email scam, which resulted in Ms Ali paying £44,000 of the settlement money into “accounts which were not operated by the respective clients but were instead operated by fraudsters”. Some £25,000 was later recovered.
The solicitor later accepted that she failed to replace a client account shortage between November 2015 and June 2016 but did so eventually.
The tribunal accepted that Ms Ali’s misconduct “could be categorised as mistakes” but it said she had “learnt a hard lesson”.
There were no allegations that she had acted dishonestly or with a lack of integrity, while “luckily, there had been no lasting significant harm caused to the clients”.
Further, both allegations represented “only two matters in many dealt with by the respondent over her lengthy and hitherto unblemished career”.
The solicitor was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £25,000 in costs.