A solicitor who persuaded a vulnerable client to pay £4,700 into her personal bank account, pretending the money would be spent on repairs to a property she had inherited, has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) rejected Vidal Eulalie Martin’s version of events, in which the cheque was written and paid into her account and spent “entirely unbeknownst to her”.
The SDT said Ms Martin’s motivation in requesting the money was “personal enrichment” and she later made misleading statements to an investigation officer from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Ms Martin was a sole practitioner and notary at V Martin Legal Services in Romford, Essex.
The firm’s COLP contacted the SRA in November 2015, with a report that set out “various concerns” about Ms Martin’s handling of probate matters, triggering an investigation.
In one incident, the sole practitioner was administering the estate of a woman, whose residual beneficiary was ‘Ms X’. The estate included ownership of a property.
An estate agent contacted Ms Martin in 2010, saying the property had suffered a large amount of damage after a frozen water tank collapsed into a bathroom.
Soon after, the solicitor and Ms X visited the property to survey the damage, before going back to the firm’s offices, at which Ms X wrote the cheque in response to Ms Martin’s request for funds to repair the damage.
No such repairs were in fact undertaken and the estate accounts made no reference to the cost of repairs.
Ms Martin’s advocate attacked the reliability of Ms X’s evidence and said the solicitor had no knowledge of the cheque until the SRA made her aware of it. It was “not believable” that Ms Martin would jeopardise her entire career and main source of income of her young family for the sake of a cheque for £4,700.
Ms Martin’s evidence also was that given her work as a notary public, the finances of which were separate from those of the firm, cheques were regularly paid into her relevant personal bank account by employees of the firm without her knowledge.
Describing Ms X as a “somewhat vulnerable witness”, the tribunal found her evidence “generally unreliable”, but did not consider everything that she had said should inevitably be disbelieved in its entirety, especially where there was evidence to back it up.
For example, the date on which Ms X said she met Ms Martin was corroborated by the firm’s visitor book – Ms Martin had said they did not go back to the office.
The SDT described Ms Martin’s evidence as “hesitant, evasive and lacking credibility… Her own account had also changed over time; in ways the tribunal considered significant”.
Various explanations put forward on Ms Martin’s behalf – that Ms X had written out the cheque of her own volition – were “highly implausible”.
“With her salary at the time, the tribunal did not find it credible that the respondent was unaware of the cheque being paid into her account.
“Over £2,200 of the sum credited had been spent before the respondent’s next monthly salary was paid into her account.”
Finding she had acted dishonestly, the SDT said Ms Martin had “given information and evidence according to her perceived interests” at different times.
She also acted dishonestly in giving false answers to the SRA over the cheque.
The SDT said Ms Martin’s motivation in requesting the cheque was “personal enrichment” and her subsequent “changes of position and statements which had been found to be misleading were more planned than spontaneous”.
The tribunal pointed out that Ms X had been reimbursed by her law firm’s insurer, not Ms Martin.
Her advocate argued that there were exceptional circumstances to justify not striking her off: this was a single incident “from an incredibly busy practitioner who had significant pressures in her personal life at the time and who had already suffered a very significant impact of the investigation”.
But he SDT said these “significant and understandable pressures” could not be said to relate to the dishonesty. “They were stresses and pressures to which very many people are subject.”
However, the tribunal rejected seven other allegations against the sole practitioner, as a result of which it cut the costs awarded to the SRA from the £106,000 it sought to £47,500.