A former solicitor who had access to the files of matters he had referred to his conveyancing manager wife has been given the lowest-level sanction by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) saw its costs claim slashed from £84,000 to £30,000, over the way it conducted the prosecution.
The SDT accepted that Simon John Bishop and Odette Green were motivated by their desire to do the best for their clients.
But it went on: “When placed in its proper context, the tribunal considered that the public would be wary about the nature and closeness of the working relationship between the respondents and that some reputational harm was likely.”
No sanction at all was not an adequate sanction for either, but a reprimand – the next step up – was, although as the SDT did not appear to have the power to issue a non-solicitor with a reprimand, it asked the SRA to hand her a rebuke.
Mr Bishop was an experienced solicitor, admitted in 1974, who left practice in 2016 to become a business adviser to longstanding clients.
Ms Green, who is not a solicitor, has 20 years of experience in the profession, working as a conveyancing manager at Midlands firms Parkinson Wright from February 2014 to October 2016 and then at Thursfields Legal.
Mr Bishop had a referral agreement with each firm when Ms Green worked for them, although the referral fees he earned were only a “very small proportion” of his turnover.
Both said the clients had given him authority to be involved, but it was not in writing on the file.
The tribunal upheld multiple rule breaches by Ms Green, including failing to provide a client-care letter, receiving instructions without “ascertaining exactly who the client was” and relying on client instructions provided by her husband without getting express written authority.
She gave her husband access to a client file at home and allowed him to review and work on it.
She also allowed her husband, in his capacity as the client’s personal adviser, to give her directions, “reproducing work and communications” drafted by him and sending documents he had prepared, when he was not entitled to do the legal work.
Ms Green also failed to establish the source of purchase money of almost £900,000 and undertake client due diligence on any of the purchasers of a property, although in context the SDT said these were minor breaches.
The tribunal accepted that Ms Bishop acted with “the best of motives in circumstances where the client was aware of the arrangements and content with the work”. However, the arrangement “created risk”, it said.
The SDT said there was no evidence of any instance where Ms Green had not acted on the suggestion of Mr Bishop, and the “degree of closeness” between them denied the client “a fully independent critical eye”.
In 2002, Mr Bishop was fined £7,500 by the SDT for acting for clients in a property transaction where there was a conflict of interest. Though “somewhat historic”, the misconduct was not dissimilar as it involved “a failure to observe procedural safeguards designed for client protection”.
The SDT said Ms Green made no attempt to hide anything improper; there was no underhand motive or even any lack of diligence. “The misconduct was the result of naiveté,” it said.
Mr Bishop was “similarly motivated by a wish to provide an efficient and effective service to his clients”. The clients had not been harmed and had not complained about what happened.
He was reprimanded and the tribunal asked the SRA to consider rebuking Ms Green, because she was not a solicitor and could not be reprimanded by the SDT.
On costs, the most serious allegations, which originally included dishonesty, were withdrawn before the hearing, with allegations of lack of integrity withdrawn during it.
The tribunal said it considered both the costs of both the investigation and the proceedings disproportionate. The allegations which had been proved required a hearing of only one day, not four days.
The allegations should have been reviewed “very much more quickly” once the regulator had the explanation that actual authority existed for the access Mr Bishop had and the work he did.
The SRA’s costs were cut to £30,000, which Ms Green and Mr Bishop were ordered to pay on a joint and several basis.