Two solicitors have agreed to leave the profession rather than face a strike-off or suspension, one for overcharging estates, the other for not disclosing to either the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or Legal Ombudsman (LeO) that attendance notes on a file had been backdated.
The first case involved Elizabeth Bessie Anne Cousins, 60, who practised on her own account at Scannells Hunt in Brentwood, Essex, and Simon Smith, who was her clerk.
According to an statement of agreed facts and outcome placed before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), Ms Cousins admitted to raising 16 bills of costs against one estate for £145,000 – the estate was worth just under £500,000 – when the time recorded on the firm’s systems amounted to £37,000.
In a second case, which Mr Smith handled, the firm billed £176,000 when the firm’s system said the pair had recorded £28,000 in billable time.
The bills in the two cases included “value elements” of £57,000 and £79,000 respectively.
In the second case, the firm’s insurers had to compensate the beneficiary to the tune of £75,000 for wrongly taking costs.
Ms Cousins’ admitted misconduct in relation to both cases. She agreed to remove herself from the roll and never apply for restoration.
Mr Smith admitted misconduct in relation to the second case and agreed to a section 43 order, which means he cannot work again in the solicitors’ profession without the SRA’s approval.
The pair had been accused by the SRA of dishonesty but with Ms Cousins’ state of health meaning that she could not participate in disciplinary proceedings, the SRA contended – and the SDT accepted – that the agreed outcome approach was a “proportionate, reasonable and pragmatic way to proceed”.
The tribunal noted: “Both respondents had acted with a lack of integrity, probity and trustworthiness. These were qualities expected of members of the legal profession. Their conduct had caused a great deal of harm to the public and the reputation of the profession.”
In 2015, Ms Cousins was disqualified as a director for five years after she failed to pay a tax liability of nearly £240,000 when Scannells Hunt was placed into liquidation three years earlier.
The other solicitor to remove himself from the roll did not get as far as the SDT, although Mark Sean Marriott, a former director of Kent firm Dakers Marriott Dugdale, was also fined £2,000.
According to a regulatory settlement agreement published by the SRA on Friday, both the regulator and LeO were notified by a client who had concerns about the way his conveyancing transaction had been handled – Mr Marriott was the fee-earner’s supervisor.
The SRA found two attendance notes on Mr X’s files which had been created by the fee-earner almost two years after the dates they bore.
It said Mr Marriott had submitted a file containing these notes to LeO, when he ought to have known they would be misleading, and also signed a letter to the SRA “within which it was represented that at least one of the notes was contemporaneous when he knew or ought to have known that it was not”.
Mr Marriott admitted to misleading the SRA and LeO. The SRA did not make any finding of dishonesty.
In mitigation, Mr Marriott said he did not have any adverse regulatory history and apologised for his conduct.
The SRA said it was an appropriate sanction because the conduct was “reckless and misled or had the potential to mislead clients, the court or other persons, whether or not that was appreciated by Mr Marriott”.