Solicitor offered to settle client’s complaint if they did not report firm

Complaint: Solicitor acknowledged he was wrong to insert condition

A solicitor who twice tried to settle a client’s complaints on condition that they not report his firm to any regulatory body has been rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Ian Bond, a sole practitioner at Canterbury firm Bond Joseph, first made the offer directly and then several months later through another firm instructed by his insurer when the complaints were not settled.

In a regulatory settlement agreement reached between the solicitor and regulator, Mr Bond accepted that he should not have done this.

He acted in breach of rule 7.5 of the SRA code of conduct, which prohibits solicitors from attempting to prevent anyone from providing information to the SRA or any other body “exercising regulatory, supervisory, investigatory or prosecutory functions in the public interest”.

Mr Bond accepted that “he should have reflected further before signing and sending the letter to the client and giving instructions to the independent law firm”, the agreement said, and apologised for what he did.

The SRA said a written rebuke was the appropriate outcome because “Mr Bond is a senior solicitor and is a sole practitioner in charge of his own firm, and so he should be held to the highest standards”.

Further, some public sanction was required to uphold public confidence in the delivery of legal services, particularly as the misconduct was repeated.

However, there was “a low risk of repetition” and the offer was not accepted by the client, meaning there was “no lasting significant harm”.

It is one of several regulatory settlement agreements published by the SRA recently.

Another concerned Brendan Casey, who qualified in 2001 and was manager and director of BMC Law in Bradford. In January 2018, he reported to the SRA that he had concerns about the conduct of an unadmitted fee-earner, ‘Mr L’.

The agreement said a routine check of settled files had revealed that monies due to the firm’s accounts had, instead, been transferred to Mr L’s private bank account by means of internet transfer. In each instance, the paying party had confirmed the details of the transfers.”

Nearly £25,000 of client monies had been misappropriated, along with £7,190 of office money.

An SRA investigation found that Mr L diverted personal injury settlements to his own bank account, while the firm did not ensure the settlement sums had cleared into its accounts before paying them out to clients from monies held in the general client account. Mr Casey made good the losses.

The investigation also found that the firm’s accounts were not up-to-date, which meant Mr Casey was unable to ascertain that the funds had been diverted.

The solicitor admitted various accounts rules breaches, but the SRA said there were no allegations of dishonesty or lack of integrity.

He was fined £2,000, with conditions put on his practising certificate preventing him from holding a compliance officer post, being a sole practitioner and handling client or office money.

In mitigation, Mr Casey said Mr L “used a degree of sophistication to steal money and cover his tracks but was ultimately discovered as a result of Mr Casey instructing an external bookkeeper”.

He argued that, although the firm’s systems were defective, “there was an effective day to day banking and payments system in place which had served the practice well for the previous three years prior to the thefts of Mr L and which had resulted in three unqualified accountant’s reports”.

Enyinda Chinda, a solicitor at North-West London firm Dylan Conrad Kreolle, was fined £1,000 after only telling the SRA in 2020 that he had been convicted of drink-driving back in 2012.

He was disqualified from driving for three years and fined £400, reflecting the fact he had been convicted of the same offence in 2009, before he became a solicitor.

The SRA fine covered both the conviction and the failure to report it promptly. The agreement noted that “no harm was caused to any persons or property as a result of his conduct”, while Mr Chinda had apologised and “provided evidence of his personal circumstances which affected both his conduct at the time and the delay in reporting the conviction to the SRA”.

Solicitor Manraj Somal was fined £2,000 for a drink-drive conviction in 2018. He too was disqualified for three years and fined £1,000.

The SRA said it was his second such conviction within 10 years, having been banned for two years in 2010.

The regulator has also handed out two rebukes to solicitors. Roland Taylor of Roland Taylor & Co in Braintree, Essex was sanctioned for making “offensive and inappropriate remarks” about staff members at another law firm, both verbally and in writing.

Steven Mark Davies, of Steve Davies Solicitors in Ormskirk, was rebuked after admitting that, as at 31 January 2021, there was a minimum client account shortage of £17,300 at the firm because of incorrect transfers from client account showing as debit balances on client ledgers, incorrect adjustments made on the client account reconciliation, and “unexplained differences”.

He also failed to report the accounts problems promptly to the SRA.

The SRA said the breaches have been rectified and there was no lasting significant harm to consumers or third parties, but the misconduct “continued for longer than was reasonable”.

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