A solicitor who practised without authorisation for four years and posted messages on Facebook about made-up cases her firm had supposedly won has been suspended from practice.
Originally, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had agreed with Irina Magdalena Schwab that she should only be fined £15,000 for her misconduct, with restrictions placed on her future practice.
But the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said it considered that the protection of the public and the reputation of the profession required that she be “immediately” removed from practice.
The regulator and Ms Schwab resubmitted their statement of agreed facts and outcome with an additional six-month suspension, which the SDT approved, saying it “reflected the seriousness” of her misconduct.
Ms Schwab worked for the Crown Prosecution Service for around a decade, during which time she qualified in 2013 as a chartered legal executive and then as a solicitor in June 2016. In April 2015, she had set up Schwab & Co Legal Services Ltd in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
However, it was only in September 2019 that, having spoken to SRA officials at a legal event, she applied to authorise the firm, which she owned, with her husband as a co-director.
The information she provided led the SRA to investigate. It discovered that since April 2015 she had been conducting reserved legal activities through the firm, when the rules required her to register either herself as a sole practitioner of a recognised sole practice or the firm as an authorised body.
Schwab & Co’s terms of business document falsely stated that it was regulated and authorised by the SRA.
The firm had also operated a client account in breach of SRA rules – and as the firm was not authorised, it would also not have been covered by the SRA Compensation Fund – failed to nominate compliance or money laundering officers, and did not seek approval for the Schwabs to be beneficial owners or managers.
The SRA discovered that, over the four years, the firm had handled more than 900 matters.
It accepted that Ms Schwab’s non-compliance was borne out of a lack of understanding of the regulatory regime, rather than an attempt to avoid SRA scrutiny, but said this would damage public confidence in the profession.
The SRA also examined the firm’s Facebook page, which Ms Schwab controlled. This featured posts that indicated successes the firm had had in court.
Though the majority “fell short of making an express assertion” that a particular result was obtained for clients by Ms Schwab, the firm and/or its employees, four posts did, when in fact they were made up.
For example, one said: “Great result at Cambridge Magistrates Court! So pleased and proud to be able to represent our client, who eventually managed to prove her innocence!!!”
Another read: “Colchester County Court, 2nd January 2018. Successful eviction hearing on behalf of a landlord by Schwab & Co.”
The SRA said: “The posting of inaccurate and/or misleading information in these circumstances; in circumstances where it would seem the intention was to create an impression that the firm was more active than in fact it was indicates a lack of integrity on the part of the respondent.”
Ms Schwab said in mitigation that she was “saddened and disappointed” that, having been encouraged by the SRA to apply for authorisation, the regulator chose to investigate her and bring tribunal proceedings.
But she stressed she was not seeking to “abdicate her responsibility for the identified, and admitted, breaches”. She apologised for her “inadvertent, but genuine, errors and misunderstanding”.
In addition to the suspension, Ms Schwab – who had been working at North London firm OJN Solicitors – was made subject to a two-year restriction order from when she returned to practice prohibiting her from being a sole practitioner, an owner or manager of a firm, or from holding a compliance officer role.
She also agreed to pay the SRA costs of £15,000.