An immigration lawyer who made “catastrophic decisions” to channel fees from an “inherently vulnerable” asylum seeker into her personal bank account has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Keisha Hackett, a part-time consultant for legal aid firm Duncan Lewis, was under “some personal pressure” at the time but this was not a “moment of madness”.
The SDT found that Ms Hackett had “taken advantage of” ‘Client A’, an asylum seeker with very little knowledge of the legal system.
She was found to have failed to assess him for legal aid, forcing him to “borrow money he could ill afford” to fund his asylum application and appeal.
Instead, she acted on a private retainer at a lower fee than Duncan Lewis’s, arranged for him to pay money into her personal bank account and failed to account for this to Duncan Lewis.
Ms Hackett argued that she had found herself in “extremely difficult and traumatic personal circumstances”, having divorced her husband, followed by “legal proceedings with her ex-husband which involved her obtaining a non-molestation order against him”. She was also bringing up their son alone. These difficulties “may have led her to make honest mistakes”.
The tribunal said this was “a sad case” in which the sums involved were relatively small.
“However, the respondent had taken catastrophic decisions resulting in the tribunal’s findings of dishonesty and that although the respondent may have been under some personal pressure at the relevant time, these had not been a ‘moment of madness’ but were instead deliberate, wilful and calculated acts for her own benefit.”
Ms Hackett, 43, worked at Duncan Lewis as a paralegal in the immigration department from 2013, before qualifying in 2016. She then worked for the firm as a consultant immigration solicitor and director of Hackett Law Limited. Her firm was dissolved in January 2019.
Under the consultancy agreement, all fees were to be paid to Duncan Lewis, which would return to Ms Hackett 60% of the profit cost fees billed for private immigration work and 50% for legal aid work.
Client A met the solicitor in December 2016 to discuss the process involved in his asylum application.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) told the tribunal said Client A asked if he was eligible for legal aid as he was unemployed, but was told he did not meet the criteria.
Client A was asked for a fixed fee of £1,530 for the asylum application, £300 in cash for Ms Hackett’s appearance at a Home Office interview and, during his appeal, £2,400 to be paid directly into her personal bank account.
The SRA said there was a further charge of £150 for what Ms Hackett described as a ‘barrister’s fee’.
Client A was later reimbursed by Duncan Lewis. The law firm said Ms Hackett explained her failure to assess him for legal aid by saying “his brothers were willing to assist him”.
Client A complained to the SRA in October 2017 that Ms Hackett had not offered him legal aid and had instructed him to transfer money into her personal bank account.
Duncan Lewis investigated the matter and itself reported Ms Hackett to the SRA in January 2018.
The SDT said Ms Hackett later “made good some of the loss” experienced by Duncan Lewis, by paying the law firm £3,400 of the £4,700 it had paid to Client A, while deducting the “profit costs” due to her.
The tribunal found that Ms Hackett had breached SRA principles and the accounts rules, saying she was motivated by “personal financial benefit”.
She admitted all the offences apart from acting with a lack of integrity and acting dishonestly.
Finding that she had done both, the SDT said there was “no evidence before the tribunal that the respondent had been suffering from a physical or psychological illness which would have affected her judgment” and she had advanced “no specific exceptional circumstances” as to why she should not be struck off.
Ms Hackett, who told the tribunal she had emigrated to the USA with her young son and was now a teacher, was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £14,400.