A solicitor has been fined £10,000 and barred from working as a sole practitioner for allowing a misleading website to appear online purporting to suggest he ran an award-winning multi-national firm when he did not, and failing to take it down when asked.
Benny John Poothavelil was also found by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal to have accepted instructions to act in a conveyance when he was not authorised to do so.
The solicitor claimed a website developer in India had launched the site without his knowledge.
Mr Poothavelil was admitted in 2012, having qualified in India in 1998, and previously practised both in that country and in other jurisdictions.
In July 2016 the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) published a bogus firm alert for Ben & Mark Solicitors, after receiving a report that www.benmarklaw.com was operating.
Mr Poothavelil wrote to the SRA in September to ask for the scam alert to be removed because it was “causing him damage” and say he had applied for authorisation for Ben & Mark Solicitors.
The following month he wrote again to say he had asked the developer to suspend the site, which had been live for about two months.
However, the site continued to be live until 11 January 2017.
It was alleged that the solicitor was using the website to promote his business. The site claimed the firm was “award-winning”, had offices in London, and Cochin, India, as well as associate offices in the US, Europe and elsewhere in India.
It spoke of “lawyers” when he was the only individual mentioned in the authorisation application.
The solicitor said in response that he had not authorised the website and when in India had simply asked a software company to create a demonstration site. He had been surprised the website could still be accessed after he had asked the developer to suspend it.
Further, he denied that the information contained on the website had been added to impress the public. He said his real experience was even more impressive and that the information had been copied over from other websites by the developer.
Another allegation was that Mr Poothavelil had accepted instructions to act for a buyer on a conveyancing transaction despite Ben & Mark Solicitors not having been authorised. The client letter included details of the firm’s website.
The seller’s solicitors discovered that while the solicitor was authorised, the firm was not, and refused to deal with Ben & Mark Solicitors.
Among other things, in mitigation the solicitor submitted he was suffering from a number of health problems and the death of his brother had limited the time he had available.
Finding all allegations against Mr Poothavelil proved, the tribunal said he was “entirely culpable” for his conduct, had planned his actions, and had been motivated by a desire to grow his firm.
Despite being told by the SRA the website was likely to mislead the public, he had initially failed to take any action and then his action was insufficient. He had damaged the reputation of the profession.
It continued that his misconduct was “deliberate and calculated”.
The appropriate sanction was a financial penalty. Fining Mr Poothavelil £10,000, the tribunal said it was also necessary to restrict him from being a sole practitioner “given his demonstrable lack of understanding of the proper procedures and processes he ought to have employed when trying to establish his firm”.
The tribunal said it was concerned about an SRA application for outside counsel’s costs of almost £14,000. Rejecting it, the tribunal said the case had been straightforward and a reasonable amount was £7,500.