The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has fined a senior partner £18,750 for accounts rules breaches – the biggest fine for an individual since the regulator was given increased powers last year.
The breaches – including a client account shortage – are the type that would in all likelihood have been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal when the SRA could only fine up to £2,000.
Under government changes introduced a year ago, it can now fine traditional law firms and those working in them up to £25,000. The highest sum to date has been £20,000 for an Oxfordshire firm’s “reckless” failure to comply with anti-money laundering rules.
In its first use of the enhanced power, the SRA issued a £15,000 fine to a solicitor who failed clients subject to deputyship orders.
In this case, Mark Hawkridge, who runs Gillingham, Kent firm Hawkridge & Company, allowed £17,819 of money to be withdrawn from client account for a purpose other than for which it was held. The shortage was replaced within six weeks of it being identified.
Second, as the firm’s compliance office for finance and administration, Mr Hawkridge failed to take “all reasonable steps” to ensure that his firm, its managers and employees complied with the accounts rules.
Third, the solicitor accepted and paid into his personal bank account a cheque for £10,000 from an elderly client for whom he held a power of attorney.
“Mr Hawkridge abused his position by taking unfair advantage of the client and did not stop acting for the client and advise them to obtain independent legal advice before accepting the money.”
He repaid the client five months later.
The SRA said his conduct showed “a disregard of his regulatory obligations”, a lack of integrity and “it caused harm or had the potential to cause harm to others.
His conduct was placed in band C, which has a financial penalty bracket of between £5,001 and £25,000.
“His conduct was placed at the top end of this bracket given the impact of Mr Hawkridge’s actions and the harm or potential harm caused by his conduct which was significant and serious. It was found that a penalty at this level would act as a credible deterrent to Mr Hawkridge and to others.”
Mitigating factors were that Mr Hawkridge admitted the allegations and made good the money.
He was ordered to pay a fine of £18,750 and costs of £1,350.