A solicitor who complained to his bank about a missing transfer of £189,000 has been struck off because the money was never there and he faked various documents to back up his case.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said James Alexander Howard’s motivation was avoiding having to tell his then partner, Charlotte Archer, that he did not have the funds to contribute towards buying a house together.
“The harm caused to Ms Archer had been plain from her evidence before the tribunal,” the SDT said.
“She had clearly found it distressing to give evidence, and the tribunal had no doubt that she had been harmed financially and emotionally by Mr Howard’s deception.”
The SDT heard that Mr Howard, admitted in 2000, worked for Penningtons Manches Cooper from July 2014 to June 2020.
Mr Howard complained to the Co-operative Bank in March 2019 that it had failed to make a transfer of over £189,400 from his account, which he claimed he had instructed it to do. He said he was worried about what had happened to the money, which he said was needed to complete on a house purchase.
But he had never given such an instruction and did not have more than minimal balances in his accounts.
The SDT did not believe his explanation that he thought his family had put the money into his account.
The tribunal found that the solicitor faked a letter purporting to be from the bank to show that he had the £189,400 in his account. He created “up to four false emails” in May 2019 “which purported to show correspondence” with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about the money.
He faked another letter from the bank in September 2019, which stated that the bank was in contact with the FCA and the transfer would take place in 14 days. Mr Howard created a fake statement of account showing he had the money.
He contacted a consumer journalist at The Daily Telegraph, sending her two forged letters, who later approached the bank about what had happened.
He went on to forge “up to 16 misleading emails” which “purported to show correspondence with the bank which had not taken place”, following it up with “up to six false emails”, in October and November 2019, which “purported to show correspondence with the Financial Ombudsman”.
The SDT said Mr Howard’s “widespread plan of deception involving multiple organisations” lasted almost a year.
“In perpetuating this deceit he had also sought to deceive the bank, the FCA, his firm and the Financial Ombudsman.”
Penningtons had investigated what was happening and given Mr Howard a final warning – during this and also the SDT hearing, he produced a supposed confession from his brother that he had falsified letters from the Co-op. He left the firm two months later.
The SDT noted that there was “little detail” in the confession and Mr Howard had not called his brother to give evidence.
Though it involved events outside of his professional life, the SDT said “these were sustained and carefully planned acts of dishonesty, which clearly fell within the regulator’s remit, notwithstanding that the ultimate target of the deception was his partner”.
The SDT found that Mr Howard had admitted to a bank investigator that he had falsified documents but denied doing so during his disciplinary proceedings.
It preferred the investigator’s evidence, which was supported by contemporaneous notes and was subject to cross-examination. Mr Howard did not give evidence at the hearing and instead made his case in his closing argument.
The SDT drew an adverse inference from his failure to give evidence on oath and have it tested in cross-examination.
He was struck off and ordered to pay £19,700 in costs.