A sister and brother struck off as solicitors for their role in dubious investment schemes have failed in their appeal to the High Court.
The SDT found that Margaret Bridget Hetherington and Patrick Clement Hetherington were more concerned with maintaining the flow of cases and income through the Wirral firm they ran together and so provided inadequate advice to their clients.
Over six years, £101m passed through the Hetherington Partnership’s client account while providing conveyancing services on the purchase of 5,085 storage pods and 1,707 parking spaces from companies linked to Group First.
The buyers were either individuals or the providers of self-invested personal pensions referred to them by Group First. The firm received £2.9m in fees in that time and the work was its main source of income.
Ms Hetherington, who qualified in 1994, was responsible for the work. Her brother, admitted to the roll in 1986, held the firm’s various compliance roles.
The SDT concluded that they had “deliberately” provided limited advice to clients so as to ensure the transactions would proceed and that their conduct was dishonest.
Lang J dismissed the challenges to the SDT’s findings of fact and conclusion on dishonesty.
She said, for example, that “the tribunal was entitled to find [Ms Hetherington’s] answers to questions about the document titled ‘contract of sale’ (COS) to be ‘astounding’.
“[She] said she had not read that document in detail or advised on it, since it was ‘just a reservation form with details of the client’. In fact, as correctly found by the tribunal, the COS required the payment by the client of the entire purchase price on a non-refundable basis…
“Whilst the document had been signed prior to the appellants’ instruction, it was this document that authorised the payment of monies from the firm to [First Group’s solicitors].
“In those circumstances, the tribunal was entitled to consider that this ‘should at the very least, have been explained to clients’ and the appellants were ‘duty bound to read, understand, and advise their clients on the consequences of that document. They wholly failed to do so’.”
Lang J said the SDT was also entitled to find that advising clients to seek independent advice from other specialists did not negate the Hetheringtons’ responsibility to ensure their clients were properly advised, and that they had sought to abrogate their responsibilities in this regard.
She rejected the submission that the SDT failed to consider the case against each solicitor separately as being “without foundation”.
The differences in their roles, responsibilities and involvement “were clearly identified”.
Lang J added: “It is important to bear in mind that this was not a ‘cut-throat’ defence in which one appellant was seeking to cast blame on the other.
“Throughout the investigation and disciplinary procedures, the appellants were united in their responses and indeed they presented a ‘joint tatement’ in support of this appeal.”