A solicitor has been struck off for practising without being authorised by the regulator and, when challenged, dishonestly claiming he had not handled client money when he had an account set up for the purpose.
However, at a hearing last month from which Jamie Stephenson was absent, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal struck out a charge accusing him of fabricating documents.
Mr Stephenson, who was born in 1981 and admitted in 2008, claimed he had suffered from serious mental illness and a range of misfortunes, including the death of a much-loved cat, to explain his behaviour.
The tribunal said it had taken mental health into consideration but that no supporting evidence had been provided to prove its significance.
The problems began when Mr Stephenson applied for authorisation as a sole practitioner shortly before he was charged with assaulting his wife. He was subsequently acquitted, but not before the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) told him to withdraw the application pending the outcome of his trial.
When it did not hear from him, the regulator wrote in July 2014 saying the application was being treated as withdrawn.
The solicitor went ahead and operated his practice, Keyne Law in Milton Keynes, from around April 2014 until the SRA intervened in November 2014. The SRA charged that he acted in at least 91 client matters, including conveyancing, under the style of Keyne Law.
It also produced evidence that his firm’s letterhead stated it was SRA regulated and gave a false authorisation number.
The respondent accepted that he ran the firm without proper authorisation but said this was the result of mental illness. He accused the SRA of withdrawing his application when it was not entitled to and breaching his human rights by not presuming him innocent until proved guilty.
Further, he had been left in a ‘Catch 22’ position by having rented premises, borrowed money, and so on. He had started up the business with good intentions.
However, the tribunal found he was not authorised and knew he was not authorised. It found he had not acted with integrity and had acted dishonestly.
The tribunal also found a denial made by Mr Stephenson to the SRA’s investigator, that he had ever opened or operated a client account while running Keyne Law, was untrue.
But it did not consider that it had sufficient evidence to be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the solicitor had forged two eviction notices or “why he would have done so when he knew his practice was coming to an end”. The allegation was struck out.
In mitigation Mr Stephenson said he had suffered a “total mental breakdown” after being under pressure at his previous firm, his marriage had broken down, he had been involved in two serious car crashes, and he had endured both the death of his cat – to which the tribunal noted he was particularly attached – and a false allegation of assault by his wife.
Concluding, the tribunal recorded: “The misconduct had commenced, it was continued intentionally… [he] had thought that he would be authorised quickly and when this did not happen the respondent continued to set up and operate the firm in any event.”
While there was apparently no harm to anyone caused or intended, the profession’s reputation was harmed.
Aggravating factors were that “dishonesty had been alleged and proved. The misconduct was deliberate and calculated and became repeated. It continued over a period of time. The respondent lied to his regulator to conceal his wrongdoing”.
While Mr Stephenson had clearly been suffering mental health issues, the tribunal “had not found that this was so significant that [he] could not have known that his conduct was dishonest. There was no evidence produced that might lead to such a finding.”
Mr Stephenson was also ordered to pay £29,000 in costs.