A solicitor was pressured by his boss to give another law firm buying property searches procured for a previous buyer his personal bank account details for the £100 it was paying, a tribunal has found.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) nonetheless fined Mohammed Saleem (previously Butt) £7,750 for a breach of the accounts rules, saying he “should have acted on his instincts and not allowed his bank details to be used”.
But it dismissed a series of other allegations made against Mr Saleem, specifically that he pocketed several hundred pounds of cash received from two clients on account of fees and had one of them sign a misleading statement about it.
The tribunal found that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had provided “weak” evidence to support them – for example, it did not call as a witness the client who signed the statement – and as a result reduced the costs it claimed by two-thirds to £10,500.
Mr Saleem, who qualified in 2015, worked at south-west London firm MT UK Solicitors for nearly two years to September 2019. The firm reported him to the SRA a year later.
He had acted for a client who pulled out of a property purchase after he had carried out searches, for which the client paid £190.
Martin Tolhurst Solicitors, acting for a new buyer, contacted him and asked if the firm would sell it the searches. Mr Saleem asked for £100 and provided his personal bank account details for it; the firm did not account to the client for the money.
He said he was told to do so by Majid Tramboo, who ran the firm, because these were fees arising from an abortive sale which could not be paid into the client account as it was not client money.
Mr Saleem said he acted on Mr Tramboo’s assurance that this was permissible, and that the money could be recovered from Mr Saleem’s salary. In the event, the SDT found he gave Mr Tramboo the money in cash the following day, which the latter had denied.
The SDT said Mr Saleem’s conduct breached various SRA principles, including lacking integrity, but was not dishonest.
“Mr Saleem was acting under the instruction and direction of Mr Tramboo to provide his own bank details to Tolhursts for the reasons set out in his evidence,” it said.
“At the time this occurred, Mr Saleem was completely subordinate to Mr Tramboo who had provided to him what, at the time, appeared to be a plausible rationale for doing so.
“This would have been a charged and pressured situation for Mr Saleem and the tribunal accepted that Mr Saleem genuinely believed that what his supervisor, Mr Tramboo, was telling him to do was permissible.”
In mitigation, Mr Saleem’s counsel said that, whilst at the time it had not been clear to the solicitor that this had been client money, Mr Saleem now accepted it was a breach of the rules.
He apologised for his misconduct, saying he had learned from “the bitter experience”, taking courses and reading previous SDT decisions. Mr Saleem also now had a senior solicitor as a mentor.
In deciding sanction, the SDT said Mr Saleem’s motivation had been “to act on the instructions of Mr Tramboo, his supervisor and more experienced solicitor. This had been a spontaneous and ill-considered decision on Mr Saleem’s part”.
It continued: “There was no direct breach of trust, however, Mr Saleem did have responsibility for his misconduct. His level of experience was not great, yet he did have 3.5 years’ experience and he should have acted on his instincts and not allowed his bank details to be used…
“Mr Saleem’s misconduct was not insignificant and his conduct was a departure from the complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of a solicitor.”
At the same time, it had been “a single episode and one of relatively brief duration in a previously unblemished career” and he had been under pressure from Mr Tramboo; the SDT “was satisfied that Mr Saleem had demonstrated genuine insight and remorse”.
It added: “There had been no abuse of his power, no misconduct involving violence, bullying; coercion by him, rather he had been, to some extent, the recipient of such treatment.”
In deciding costs, the tribunal said the case had been properly brought by the SRA “as it had raised serious issues involving integrity and dishonesty” but the £31,000 it sought had to be reduced given that it had not approved the most serious aspects of its case.