A solicitor who “brass-plated” the practices of other solicitors and did little to supervise them has been struck off, after one misappropriated £140,000 of client money.
James O’Connor – who qualified in 1997 – was also found to have paid unlawful referral fees.
He ran Barrington Lewis Law, whose head office was in Skelmersdale in Lancashire, with branch offices in Preston, Luton and Stockport trading as Eastway Solicitors, Greenbridge Solicitors and Madison Legal respectively.
However, the SDT found that he “exercised no control” over the branch offices or the staff working in them.
“As long as he received payment from those offices, said to be a contribution towards the [professional indemnity] insurance costs, [he] left those offices to their own devices.”
The second solicitor before the tribunal, Giles Guy Robertson, was employed as a solicitor at Madison Legal and would send Mr O’Connor £600 a month.
When asked in an interview with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) whether that was money Mr Robertson made from Madison Legal, Mr O’Connor replied: “I didn’t really care where he got the money, but I wanted paying for going up there, advising and teaching people… how to run personal injury (PI) claims.”
As a result of this, he admitted that he failed to detect or prevent Mr Robertson misappropriating £141,000 from the client account of a commercial client.
Mr O’Connor was found also to have made payments of thousands of pounds to two companies for PI referrals – one was paid on a case-by-case basis, which he admitted was a breach of the referral fee ban, while the other received a fee for marketing to the Polish community over a period of time, which he argued was not.
Much of the marketing by the second company was done by way of leaflets, and the SDT said it did not accept that Mr O’Connor paid £8,000 just for this. It found the marketing services agreement between the pair was intended to circumvent the ban and was, “in everything but name”, a referral fee agreement.
Mr O’Connor admitted other failings: accounts rules breaches; a failure to send six years of accountant’s reports; dishonestly misleading the SRA by declaring that the firm did not hold client money when it did; paying nearly £9,000 of staff wages out of client account, although this was done in error and the money replaced; and dishonestly misleading both the SRA and a professional indemnity insurer by saying the firm conducted 100% PI work when it in fact undertook other types of work as well.
Deciding to strike off Mr O’Connor, the SDT said he had, in effect, “brass-plated” the trading styles of others.
“He left them to carry out work with little if any supervision. Whilst he undertook supervision of some files, and made some visits to the offices, he paid very little attention to the finances of the subsidiary offices…
“The tribunal found that [his] motivation for much of his misconduct was to avoid regulatory control.”
The SDT said that, even if it accepted that Mr O’Connor was the victim of a fraud by Mr Robertson, this only applied to one allegation, and not to the findings of dishonesty.
Mr Robertson started as a paralegal at the firm before qualifying in 2013. The SDT dismissed his explanations for the transfer of the £141,000, which it said were “implausible, incomprehensible, irrational and incredible” – rather, he had “consciously and deliberately” transferred the money for his own benefit.
It also found that he had allowed a third party to have access to the firm’s client account and misled the SRA by saying that he had no intention of managing a law firm when he had separately applied to it to set up his own practice.
He too was struck off and the pair were ordered to pay costs of £57,000 on a joint and several basis.