A solicitor who plundered his firm’s client account for nearly £400,000, while failing to redeem a mortgage or pay stamp duty as required, has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
But Robert Alan Downie is now operating an unregulated law firm beyond the reach of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The SDT found Mr Downie to have acted dishonestly, which he denied, but it said he gave “no detailed explanations of his denial although he had been given every opportunity to do so”.
He did not engage with the tribunal but in a letter to the SRA in January, the solicitor admitted acting recklessly and said: “I have never denied that I deserve to be struck off.”
The SDT said Mr Downie’s firm, Bathurst Brown & Downie in South-West London, “benefitted directly” from 22 round-sum transfers totalling £193,200 made from client to office account between July and September 2019 without the authority of the clients from whose accounts the money was taken.
“The money was shortly thereafter paid away from office account to unknown destinations.”
The tribunal said the second sum of £204,200 was withdrawn from one client’s account and used to discharge another client’s mortgage.
When he was challenged by clients, Mr Downie, who had sole control of the client and office accounts, “prevaricated”.
The SDT heard that Mr Downie, born in 1958, was admitted to the roll in 1997. He was the sole equity partner but had a salaried partner who was the COLP and COFA until September 2018. After that, and until it was closed down by the SRA in November 2019, the firm did not have a COLP or COFA.
Three groups of clients who had instructed the firm on conveyancing matters complained to the SRA – all of them in September 2019.
Client SK and her sister complained that their purchase of their parents’ house had completed, but the outstanding £310,000 mortgage had not been redeemed and the £22,400 of stamp duty not paid. It appeared that Mr Downie acted for the parents too.
Client FK complained that £31,000 in stamp duty had not been paid. Person CE and her daughter-in-law Client NE complained that they had not received the full share of the sale proceeds from their property sale.
Counsel for the SRA said Mr Downie “appeared to have been operating a system of ‘teeming and lading’” where he was not using clients’ funds for their own purposes “but rather using clients’ money for other purposes; dealing with it as his own, transferring large sums out to the office account and then further beyond”.
The tribunal said it was “inherently improbable” that Mr Downie “believed himself to be entitled to the money transferred not least because round sums rarely equated to amounts due by way of costs and that the tribunal could and should make an adverse inference from the respondent’s complete failure to explain his handling of client money in the manner that he did”.
It concluded: “The misconduct represented a major departure from the complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of a solicitor and was completely foreseeable for example failure to redeem a mortgage or pay SDLT was obviously going to cause financial loss to the client.
“There were several aggravating factors; the dishonest round sum transfers had been repeated over a period of three months and there was no indication that any of the misconduct was anything other than deliberate and calculated.”
The SDT added that the solicitor had not co-operated “in any meaningful way” with the SRA’s investigation and it was “impossible to gauge” whether he had any insight into his misconduct.
Mr Downie was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £26,400.
The tribunal heard that, post intervention, Mr Downie “appeared to have transferred his work over to RAD Legal Ltd”, which was incorporated in December 2019 with him and his wife as directors and joint equity owners.
According to its website, it provides legal advice in non-contentious commercial contracts in employment, human resources, family, GDPR and wills.
“It appeared [Mr Downie] had contacted former clients of the firm to tell them directly about the new company. An email, which was before the tribunal, had been received by the [SRA] from one former client. It did not explain why the firm had closed.”