Solicitor failed to check whether jailed client wanted to sell property

Prison: Solicitor did not know how to do due diligence on client

A veteran solicitor did not confirm that his imprisoned client had given instructions to transfer a £300,000 property to his mother, with the client claiming after it happened that he knew nothing about it, a tribunal has heard.

Arthur Roger Brooks said it did not cross his mind that the mother could not be relied on “to act properly” in respect of her son.

He also did not know how to conduct due diligence on a client in prison.

He was fined £10,000 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, avoiding a more serious sanction on the basis that he had retired and had no intention of returning to practise.

Mr Brook was a sole practitioner in Leek, Staffordshire who qualified in 1973.

A statement of agreed facts and proposed outcome placed before the tribunal explained that ‘Person A’ bought the property in 1997 with a loan from his mother, who held a charge over it for £65,000.

In 2017, he was jailed for 12 years for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

In December 2018, Mr Brooks was instructed by the mother to act on behalf of her and Person A to transfer the property by way of gift to her.

The solicitor did not confirm his instructions, or seek any ID, from Person A.

He left it to the mother to arrange for Person A to sign the transfer, which was supposedly done with his sister as witness. The transfer was submitted to the Land Registry. At the time, the property was worth £300,000. Mr Brooks was paid £406 for the work.

Some six months later, a friend of Person A emailed the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to say that the property had been transferred without Person A’s consent.

Person A told the SRA that he did not sign the transfer and never received any communications from Mr Brooks.

He said his mother had sent him the form but he returned it unsigned as he did not want to transfer the property – the signature on it was not his and he had not been visited by his sister.

Person A said he had previously received a letter from another law firm about transferring the property but threw it away – the SRA later obtained a copy of that letter.

The mother, however, told the SRA that her son had returned the transfer signed and that her daughter then witnessed it in her presence.

The statement said the dispute over whether Person A signed the document and/or agreed to the transfer did not need to be resolved for the purposes of the allegations made against Mr Brooks – that he failed to carry out adequate customer due diligence and failed to obtain instructions from Person A and/or failed to ensure Person A agreed to the transfer.

In mitigation that was not agreed by the SRA, Mr Brooks said this was an isolated incident in an otherwise long and unblemished career.

“That such a long and distinguished career should end on this note is in itself a significant punishment,” he said.

He retired from practise following the orderly closure of his firm and has no intention of practising again, meaning there was no chance of a repetition or any risk to the public.

The statement went on: “Notwithstanding his lengthy career, [Mr Brooks] had not encountered a situation such as this where the client was serving a substantial custodial sentence and did not know how to go about verifying the identity of that client.

“That he could not rely upon the mother of the client as to acting properly in respect of her son did not cross his mind. There was nothing to suggest that the relationship was anything other than sound, as evidenced by the will he had drafted for her.”

Approving the agreed £10,000 fine, the tribunal accepted that Mr Brooks was well regarded and had hitherto provided a good standard work and advice to his clients.

“However, the circumstances presented in this case were inherently serious and the harm great.”

But weighing up all the factors – including his admissions and co-operation with the SRA – “the tribunal agreed, on balance, that the appropriate sanction… was a fine”.

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