Solicitor who did not understand her firm’s accounts suspended

SDT: Conduct harmed clients and staff

A solicitor who told the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that she had “fucked up” her law firm’s accounts has been suspended for six months by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The SDT heard that Rebecca Jayne Hawksley had not submitted an accountant’s report to the SRA since her firm was set up in 2017 and the regulator was “unable to determine” whether there was enough money in its client account to match its liabilities.

In an agreed outcome approved by the SDT, the SRA said she had warned it against using words that “trigger major problems for me”, such as the word “failure” and references to particular clients.

They were in “that list of things that if you were talking to a dog, the dog would be cowering under the table by now”, she explained to an SRA official.

Ms Hawksley, admitted in 1997, was a sole practitioner from 2002 to 2010, then a member at the Hawksley Partnership for two years, then a sole practitioner again until July 2017 when she set up Hawksleys Law Ltd, trading as Claas Solicitors.

The firm was based in Camberley, Surrey, with a branch office in South London. It employed two lawyers and 10 non-lawyer fee earners.

The other manager at Claas Solicitors left in November 2017, and Ms Hawksley returned to being a sole practitioner until the arrival of Varinder Singh Bhandal in May 2019.

He left in May 2021 and Ms Hawksley was briefly a sole practitioner again before Claas Solicitors was shut down by the SRA in August.

The solicitor said that, until 2017, her parents “did the books”. They then retired and she was “unable to deal with the accounts” because she did not understand them. She admitted there were no company accounts.

Ms Hawksley went on: “I have actively hidden this from Varinder and cannot express how bad this makes me feel as I know I have screwed not only my career up but also harmed him.”

Accountants called in by the firm reported in 2021 that £1.1m in payments from the client bank account, relating to 170 items, were not posted to the cashbook.

She confirmed making the comment “I’ve fucked up the accounts” to an investigation officer from the SRA in March 2021.

Ms Hawksley admitted failing to operate a proper accounting system, maintain accurate books of account, submit annual accountants’ reports to the SRA or carry out reconciliations. She also failed to report these defects to the SRA between 2018 and 2021.

The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) reported Ms Hawksley to the SRA in February last year in the wake of a complaint about her handling of an estate; the client had already complained to the SRA too.

She admitted failing to provide a proper standard of service and to co-operate with LeO.

The SDT said the misconduct was such that Ms Hawksley ought to be immediately removed from practice “in order to protect the public and the reputation of the profession”.

“She was aware that she was in breach of her obligations as regards the management of the accounts. Notwithstanding that knowledge, she breached further obligations by failing to report the accounting breaches and other failures to the SRA.”

Her conduct caused harm to clients and staff, as well as bereaved family members. The tribunal also noted medical evidence Ms Hawksley put forward.

The solicitor was suspended for six months and ordered to pay costs of £15,000.

Conditions were imposed indefinitely on her practising certificate preventing her from acting as a manager or owner of a law firm, or in any management or compliance role, or holding or receiving client money.

In separate proceedings Mr Bhandal, who ceased being a director of the firm in July 2021, admitted failing to maintain accurate account books, submit accountants’ reports to the SRA or undertake any reconciliations.

He was fined £10,000, ordered to pay costs of £7,500 and made subject to conditions for two years preventing him from being a sole practitioner, compliance officer, or from holding client money.

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