A solicitor who acted for the seller of the property she and her husband were buying has been reprimanded for acting when the rules were clear that she could not.
Nasrin Ali, who said she had wrongly believed she could act because the client consented to it, had to resign from a part-time judicial post as a result of the events that led to the tribunal.
Ms Ali, who qualified in 1998, had been a sole practitioner before her firm closed in 2016 and she joined Slater & Gordon (S&G) as a senior associate in the construction team. At the time of the hearing, she was employed as a legal assistant (conveyancing) at Versus Law.
Her role at S&G was expanded to include residential conveyancing and she was told she was expected to bring in her own work.
‘GV’ was a longstanding property developer client of hers, and when Ms Ali and her husband agreed to buy a house in Manchester from him, he asked her to act on his behalf. The Alis instructed a local law firm.
It was established before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that Ms Ali had not sought to conceal the nature of the transaction from her S&G colleagues.
In April 2017, Ms Ali was told that she was being made redundant. A discussion about her client files led to her work for GV being referred to S&G’s risk and compliance department, as a result of which the firm told GV that it could not act for him because of the conflict.
The S&G investigation found that Ms Ali had neither formally declared her interest in the transaction nor referred it previously to the compliance department.
She said the client was fine with the arrangement, that she had sought advice from two senior lawyers in the department, and that she considered it was the firm and not her that was acting for GV, meaning there was no conflict.
However, S&G dismissed Ms Ali for gross misconduct.
GV wrote to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), and gave evidence before the tribunal, to say Ms Ali had acted with integrity, did not allow her independence to be compromised and always acted in his best interests.
Ms Ali conceded to the SDT that outcome 3.4 of the SRA Code of Conduct imposed an absolute prohibition on acting in matters where there existed an own interest conflict and/or a significant risk of one.
She asserted that she had mistakenly believed that she was entitled to act as it was a straightforward transaction where the client had given express consent to her acting. She said she had made a “foolish mistake”.
In finding that outcome 3.4 required Ms Ali not to act, the SDT said: “The tribunal was not persuaded by the argument that, as the sale of the property was a ‘straightforward transaction’, the risk of conflict was low.
“The tribunal determined that there was always going to be significant risk in acting for GV on the sale of a property that she and her husband were purchasing.
“The tribunal accepted that GV was well known to [her], that she had acted for him on numerous matters in the preceding years, that he considered her to be ‘family’ and that he had insisted that she act for him.
“Notwithstanding these factors, the tribunal concluded that GV’s consent, or as [Ms Ali] put it GV’s ‘waiver’, did not and could not derogate from her professional obligation to comply with the code.”
But the SDT did not find that she had lacked integrity in the circumstances and “did not subordinate the interests of the client”, although she had damaged the trust of the public in her and the profession.
It also rejected allegations that Ms Ali had provided false statements to S&G and the SRA. That two colleagues from whom she said she sought advice about the issue did not recall her doing so was not strong enough evidence.
In mitigation, Ms Ali’s counsel said that, while GV had suffered no loss, Ms Ali had suffered “immense loss”, namely her job, any prospect of a redundancy pay-out from S&G, her part time judicial post – from which she had to resign – and her good reputation. Her position as a Labour councillor was also under threat.
The SDT concluded that Ms Ali “should have known better”, but her “foolish and misconceived ill judgment” had caused no harm except to herself. It was also to be set against the backdrop of an “unblemished career spanning two decades”.
The seriousness of the misconduct was “low” and “highly unlikely” to be repeated, “and as such warranted the imposition of a reprimand”.
Ms Ali was also ordered to pay costs of £9,700.