A solicitor who was a major figure in miners’ compensation claims has been fined for using £140,000 of residual balances in his client account to pay salaries and tax bills.
In addition to the £20,000 penalty, Philip Ashley Browell has accepted various conditions on his practising certificate in an agreement with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), now approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Mr Browell, sole owner and director of North-East law firm Browell Smith & Co, qualified in 1981 and self-reported what had happened to the SRA on the advice of his accountant.
Between 2017 and 2019, he applied to the SRA to give nearly £10,000 of residual balances to charity.
However, it emerged that, during 2018, three transfers totalling £140,000 were made from client to office account, twice to cover imminent VAT bills and one for salaries.
On each occasion, Mr Browell said, he had not had time to raise the funds personally – as he had done several times previously – but he then replaced the money 32, four and 27 days later respectively.
The firm also failed to inform clients annually about their residual balances.
In mitigation, the solicitor said he had passed many of the financial controls over to his then COFA because he was busy with “secondary litigation” arising from miners’ claims.
He took back control after these events and the firm – which offers a traditional mix of consumer legal services – has since gone “from strength to strength”.
He added that he has put controls in place to ensure the problem could not recur and, at the time of the hearing, hoped to have cleared all the residual balances by the end of January 2022.
In agreeing to the sanction, the SDT said Mr Browell was “an experienced solicitor who understood the sacrosanct nature of client monies, and who knew, at the time the transfers were made, that the transfers were in breach of the accounts rules”.
In using client monies as he did, “he had caused harm to the reputation of the profession”.
In addition to the £20,000 fine and costs of £25,000, conditions imposed on his practising certificate mean Mr Browell cannot practise as a sole practitioner or be the sole authorised person at a firm, be a COLP or COFA, act as a sole signatory to any client or office account, or have the sole power to authorise transfers from any account.