Solicitor who “accidentally bought run-off cover” struck off

SDT: Earlier failed prosecution did not amount to exceptional circumstances

The solicitor at the centre of a collapsed dishonesty prosecution by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in 2019 has been struck off for dishonesty after a second prosecution for new offences.

Rajinder Kumar Puri was found to have practised without indemnity insurance for more than two years; he said he had mistakenly bought run-off cover for his practice, and provided fake bank statements to the SRA in a bid to show he was not practising.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) rejected Mr Puri’s argument that the failed prosecution amounted to ‘exceptional circumstances’ meaning that he should not be struck off.

It said his dishonesty was “deliberate, calculated and repeated” in practising with no proper indemnity insurance and providing the SRA with the falsified bank statements.

Responding to Mr Puri’s arguments that the earlier prosecution made his life “a living hell” and damaged his mental health, the SDT said the solicitor had “never received medical treatment for any mental health condition” and the medical evidence he provided was not independent.

Counsel for Mr Puri argued that the SRA’s first prosecution had “collapsed in a dramatic fashion”, with only two admitted allegations out of the 13 made by the regulator being proven.

Ruling in 2019, the SDT described one of the SRA witnesses as “dishonest”, and said another, a family law solicitor, had given evidence that was “discredited, unreliable and, in part, untrue”. Mr Puri was fined £7,500, but there was no order as to costs.

Defending the SRA’s earlier decision to prosecute, the new tribunal acknowledged that the rejected allegations were undermined by the “inherently weak and tenuous nature” of the witness evidence.

However, it went on: “The unreliability of the witness evidence would not have come to light were it not for the matter progressing to a substantive hearing; it was not evident on the face of the papers.

“The hearing process therefore served access to open justice in that witness evidence was properly challenged under cross examination and found to be unreliable which led to the allegations being dismissed.”

The SDT said the decision to bring the earlier prosecution did not “amount to bad faith or erroneous judgement” by the SRA, nor did it amount to ‘exceptional circumstances’ meaning that Mr Puri should not be struck off.

The tribunal heard that the solicitor was admitted in 2007, and his Yorkshire law firm, Rothery Inesons, began trading in 2013. It was shut down by the SRA in April 2021.

Mr Puri admitted that between October 2018 and February 2021, he failed to have appropriate indemnity insurance. He admitted acting dishonestly in continuing to practise.

He said he had begun to explore run-off cover ahead of a prospective merger in 2017 but that collapsed because of the first SDT allegations. He told his broker he now needed new insurance and it was only in 2019 that he realised he had been sold run-off cover instead, at a cost of £87,000.

Mr Puri said he had been distracted by the SDT proceedings, adding that his annual premium would have been around £25,000.

He also admitted acting dishonestly in providing the SRA with falsified bank statements in April 2021 in an effort to mislead it into believing he was not practising.

The SRA investigating officer compared screenshots provided by Lloyds Bank with statements provided by Mr Puri, noting that on 3 March 2021 both of them showed a transfer of £3.

The statement provided by Mr Puri said this left a balance of £18,582.30 in the account, but the Lloyds’ statement showed a balance of £156,775.18.

Mr Puri admitted: “My conduct was serious, discrete and isolated. I genuinely believe that my state of panic and moment of madness flowed from, and was caused as a consequence of the continuing adverse impact the first set of SDT proceedings had upon me and my mental health.”

However, the SDT said Mr Puri’s medical evidence was not independent and the doctor involved had not seen his medical records.

The sole practitioner had “never received medical treatment for any mental health condition” and it was not argued that his mental health was “so impaired that he could not distinguish between right and wrong”.

Mr Puri was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £28,000.

In the original version of the article, we misunderstood the SDT ruling to mean that the falsified bank statements meant money had gone missing. This was not the case and we are happy to make that clear.

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