A solicitor “tested the ethical standards” of the profession by seeking a loan from a client to pay school fees without advising him to seek independent advice, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has found.
It said Douglas Glyn Charles Frame had displayed bad judgement in seeking the £6,000 loan.
But it dismissed the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) allegation that he had dishonestly represented to the client, Baden Bull, that he was self-employed rather than working at Hill & Abbott (since acquired by fellow Essex firm Pinney Talfourd).
It rejected a further allegation that Mr Frame dishonestly failed to use the funds to pay counsel’s fees and instead paid them into his personal bank account.
In what boiled down to whose evidence it believed, the SDT preferred Mr Frame’s and found he had agreed to borrow £6,000 from Mr Bull.
He had initially stated that repayment would be by paying counsel’s fees, but that this changed when Mr Bull later asked for an invoice that Mr Frame was unable to provide, as only the firm could do so.
Instead, he repaid the £6,000 in January 2019, after money owed to the solicitor was paid.
Mr Frame worked at Hill & Abbott between January 2014 and August 2018, when he joined East Anglia firm Fosters.
The tribunal heard that, in January 2017, Mr Frame was instructed by the daughter of Mr Bull, himself a former client who attended their initial meeting.
Mr Bull’s evidence was that, a year later, Mr Frame asked him to pay counsel’s fees of £5,000 plus VAT and that the solicitor had told him he was self-employed, meaning the money should be sent to him. He changed his position on the latter point during cross-examination, however.
Mr Bull was “seeking to assist the tribunal and gave truthful evidence”, it found. But the reliability of his account was “undermined by the seemingly far-fetched suggestions of fabrications” of his written evidence and by oral evidence which “differed markedly” from it.
The tribunal said Mr Frame – who had sought “a means of managing acute cash flow difficulties” – had “exhibited bad judgement in asking for the loan” but found that he received the money pursuant to a verbal agreement with Mr Bull.
There was “no absolute prohibition on such a loan”, the SDT acknowledged – that the intended repayment mechanism was settling counsel’s fees did not make it client money – but there were “strict safeguards and conditions which applied”.
It found that, by failing to comply with these, Mr Frame had placed himself in an own-interest conflict.
“The tribunal considered that asking his former client, and the father of his current client, for a loan tested the ethical standards of the profession.
“The acknowledged failure to ensure that independent legal advice was taken tested those standards further. Mr Frame had admitted that this failure did not maintain the trust placed in him and in the provision of legal services by the public.”
Though the solicitor denied that his conduct had lacked integrity, the SDT held that it did, especially as he did not pay counsel as originally agreed, make direct repayment within a reasonable period (because of delays in recouping the money he was owed), or keep Mr Bull informed and ensure he was content with the delays.
In mitigation, Mr Frame apologised for his “error of judgement” and provided “a glowing testimonial” from his current employer.
The SDT accepted that Mr Frame had shown “genuine insight into his conduct and remorse” and that a “significant fine” was appropriate – his practice did not need to be restricted. It ordered him to pay £8,000, which it reduced to £2,000 due to his means.
It went on to reduce the £23,550 in costs sought by the SRA to £10,350, in part because of the allegations not proven and also because the £18,500 claimed by the SRA’s external solicitors, Capsticks, for 175 hours of work were “excessive” given the nature of the case.
It further reduced the figure to £5,000 given Mr Frame’s means.