A solicitor who was cautioned by the police for fraud after writing a cheque for £2,000 from client account to himself has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Matthew Edward Flynn initially denied that he had written the cheque and throughout the proceedings continued to blame his former boss, Richard Tinkler of Tinklers Solicitors.
After the tribunal found he had acted dishonestly, Mr Flynn argued that it was an “exceptional case” which did not require him to be struck off.
However, the tribunal found that Mr Flynn was “entirely responsible for his actions” and had failed to show insight by continuing to seek to blame Mr Tinkler throughout rather than taking full responsibility.
The SDT heard that Mr Flynn was employed by Tinklers in Ipswich between 2004 and December 2016 – he left three months after he qualified as a solicitor, having been a paralegal.
Shortly after, a client told Mr Tinkler that it was following Mr Flynn, and said Tinklers was holding £2,021 on client account as a residual balance.
It turned out that Mr Flynn had made out a cheque to himself for that sum in August 2015 – he concealed what he had done by completing the cheque stub and accounts slip to say the cheque was paid to the client, before paying it into his personal account.
In April 2016, Mr Flynn misled the client in an email about what had happened to the money.
Mr Tinkler told the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that he was the sole signatory on all the firm’s bank accounts and that he had not signed this one.
He engaged a barrister at Derby firm Smith Bowyer Clarke to investigate and he reported Mr Flynn to the SRA on Mr Tinkler’s behalf.
Mr Flynn told the SRA that he had not signed the cheque, but the SRA later received notification from the Norfolk and Suffolk Constabulary that, in May 2018, Mr Flynn admitted an offence of fraud and accepted a police caution for dishonestly abusing his position as a paralegal to make a gain of £2,021.
In evidence to the tribunal, Mr Flynn claimed he only accepted the caution to avoid a trial, and regretted doing so with hindsight.
He admitted making out the cheque and paying it to himself, but argued that he did it at the suggestion of Mr Tinkler “in order to pay himself a tax-free bonus” and that he did not realise at the time that this was dishonest.
Mr Flynn admitted that what he later wrote to the client in an email was “a lie”, but said he did it on the instructions of Mr Tinkler.
In dismissing his attempts to blame Mr Tinkler, the SDT noted that Mr Flynn – who represented himself before the tribunal – did not put his argument that the payment was part of a bonus to Mr Tinkler in cross-examination.
“In any event, the tribunal considered the explanation to be absurd, far-fetched and not supported by any evidence,” it said.
“In relation to Mr Tinkler’s wider role, the tribunal noted that it was Mr Tinkler who had instructed Simon Bowyer Clarke to make a report to the SRA. The tribunal found this to be inconsistent with the respondent’s case that Mr Tinkler had approved the improper payment.
“The tribunal rejected the respondent’s evidence that Mr Tinkler had approved this transfer and it accepted Mr Tinkler’s evidence on this point. Mr Tinkler had been consistent in his evidence that he had not approved the cheque and the tribunal did not find his evidence to be unreliable.”
It added that, even if Mr Tinkler had given his authority or instruction to make the payment, Mr Flynn should have refused.
“If an unscrupulous training partner made a demand to a paralegal that involved an improper payment from client account, the paralegal should not bow to it. Therefore, while the tribunal had rejected the respondent’s case on this point, even if the respondent’s case had been accepted, his conduct would still have been highly unethical and displayed a clear lack of integrity.”
The tribunal accepted that there were a small number of occasions when people would wrongly accept a police caution, but this was not one of them: “He would not have accepted that caution, with all the potential consequences for his career, simply to avoid a trial.”
In mitigation, Mr Flynn said he had repaid the monies and that this was a “one-off episode” – there had been no problems since he had been practising as a solicitor.
But cases of dishonesty lead to a strike-off unless there are exceptional circumstances, and the SDT did not find any here.
It said: “This was not a ‘moment of madness’ or a temporary loss of judgment, it was a planned series of dishonest acts committed by the respondent personally. The tribunal found there to be nothing that would justify a lesser sanction.
“The only appropriate and proportionate sanction was that the respondent be struck off the roll.”