A “stressed” solicitor has been struck off after receiving a suspended prison sentence for pretending claims had concluded and paying clients damages they had not in fact been awarded.
Paula Harris pleaded guilty last October to three counts of fraud by abuse of position, and one count of making/supplying articles for use in fraud.
She was given an eight-month sentence, suspended for a year, as well as 100 hours’ community service.
Ms Harris, who was admitted in 2010, worked her way up from a paralegal to a salaried partner and head of the business team at Newcastle firm David Gray Solicitors,
But it came to light in 2017, after a complaint about delay, that 12 of her files contained 29 fraudulent documents, with eight clients having received money they were not entitled to.
In an outcome agreed with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, Ms Harris admitted she had failed to file claims and pretended they had been decided.
She created fraudulent judgments and paid them out using money held by the firm, costing it an estimated £15,000.
Sentencing her, His Honour Judge Stubbs said Ms Harris was “simply overwhelmed” by her workload and “by everything else going on in your life”.
“You thought that your only way out was – instead of accepting that weakness and asking for help – to try and cover up your weakness by creating a series of false documents, sophisticated documents, so that you could keep your head above water, keep clients quiet and maintain the fiction that you were coping in the responsible job that you were holding down.”
In mitigation, Ms Harris pointed out she had a clean disciplinary record and had made no personal gain from the fraud. Her workload had impacted on her health, she said.
Striking the solicitor off, the tribunal said “the level of culpability and harm from her misconduct are high”.
Her conviction for fraud had caused harm to the profession and was aggravated by the fact the breaches of law took place across multiple files.
The tribunal approved the agreement that she should be struck off. She was also ordered to pay £1,825 costs.