A sole practitioner who let his law firm “dissolve into a complete mess” has been fined £7,500 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Cyril Peter Astill admitted that, despite agreeing a monthly payment plan with his accountants, he could not afford to pay them.
His bank froze his office account in November 2017, with the firm nearly £30,000 overdrawn, forcing him to use his personal bank account.
The bank unfroze the account the following month, but the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) decided to shut down Peter Astill & Co, based in Leicester, in February 2018.
Mr Astill told the SRA, in an agreement approved by the SDT, that the firm’s difficulties began with “an episode of dishonesty by a bookkeeper” in 2013.
“He then attempted to outsource the financial management of the firm to a firm of accountants. Problems arose when the respondent was unable to cover the cost of the fees and they stopped work.”
He said he made “concerted efforts” to merge with another firm and there were “protracted negotiations” until 2016, but “unfortunately” no successful merger agreement.
By late 2017, the firm had debts – which the solicitor put down in particular to being removed from conveyancing panels because he was a sole practitioner, and a fall in ‘walk-in’ work – and Mr Astill said he became “overwhelmed with his financial difficulties and suffered health issues”. He added that he lacked “financial acumen”.
The SDT heard that Mr Astill, born in 1951, was admitted in 1982. He was the principal of Peter Astill & Co from 2014 to 2018, and his firm’s COLP and COFA.
The SRA had inspected the books of his previous firm in September 2013, but this did not result in a formal report and the investigation was closed on the grounds that the sole practitioner was “taking action to resolve matters with the help of his accountants” and “had told the SRA his firm was due to merge with another firm”.
The SDT said the investigation identified that Mr Astill used a “manual accounting system” which did not comply with the rules and there was a cashbook but no running balance.
There were 16 ledgers with client debits of over £3,000 and breaches identified in the qualified accountant’s reports had not been rectified. A further investigation of the firm’s books by the SRA began in October 2017, leading to a final report.
Mr Astill admitted that he continued to accept instructions from two conveyancing clients after his office bank account had been frozen, and was awaiting funds on a probate matter.
He admitted failing to protect client money during the period September to December 2017 by causing his bank to put restrictions on his use of the firm’s bank accounts.
Mr Astill also admitted failing to keep proper accounting records, failing to ensure that balances on client accounts were “readily ascertainable” and failing to carry out client reconciliations.
As a result, he “failed to run his business or carry out his role in the business effectively”, in a way that maintained public trust or complied with his obligations as COFA.
The SDT said Mr Astill had “allowed his practice to dissolve into a complete mess” when, as the firm’s principal and COFA, he was under a “strict obligation” to ensure compliance with the rules.
His misconduct was repeated and continued over a period of time, although he had shown genuine insight through his “open and frank admissions” and had no other regulatory findings against him.
Mr Astill accepted a fine of £7,500, reduced from £15,000 because of his “limited means”.
He also agreed that conditions should be placed on his practising certificate for an indefinite period preventing him from being a sole practitioner, partner in a law firm, COLP or COFA and from holding client money or being a signatory on any client account.