Solicitors fined for allowing firm to take on work beyond expertise

SRA: Regulatory settlement agreements

Two solicitors have been fined for allowing their firm to take on work in areas where they had no experience and accepting client money when it did not have a client account.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) disposed of the misconduct by Patrick Asemota and Kwasi Boakye Yiadom by way of separate regulatory settlement agreements, which mean they will not be referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

The fines did not exceed the £2,000 maximum that the regulator can hand out to solicitors.

Mr Asemota was the COLP and COFA of London firm SLA Solicitors from December 2015 to October 2019, while Mr Boakye Yiadom was a partner from May 2016 until April 2020.

In December 2017, the firm began work for a client on a probate matter when the firm as a whole and the fee-earner handling it had no prior experience in probate.

An SRA investigation in August 2018 found multiple failings in how the firm dealt with the case:

  • It received £58,000 of client estate monies despite not having a client account and having not undertaken any client due diligence, including verifying identity;
  • The file showed no sign of supervisory oversight;
  • The estate had debts of £6,000, which were not paid off before the estate monies were distributed to beneficiaries;
  • Potential beneficiaries with equal or greater claims to the estate were not identified by the firm; and
  • Some £37,600 was paid out inappropriately, including settling hospital bills for relatives of the deceased.

Mr Boakye Yiadom supervised the probate work but left the firm for extended periods of time between February and August 2018. “Mr Boakye Yiadom accepts that while work had commenced on this client matter, he was rarely in the UK or attending the firm’s office,” the agreement said.

Then, in 2018, the firm was asked to review and advise on a commercial contract for a client when it had no experience in that field either.

Mr Asemota was the supervisor on the file and failed to ensure his clients knew of the firm’s inexperience.

SLA received £4,300 from its clients into its office account and again failed to undertake due diligence to confirm the identity of its clients. Three months later, SLA transferred the matter to another firm.

The firm’s policies required Mr Asemota’s signature on any payments or transactions of £1,000 or more, but he did not authorise the payments received in each matter.

Both solicitor admitted failing to supervise the work of staff adequately and ensuring the work carried out was in an area the firm had expertise in, as well as not having adequate anti-money laundering policies.

They also admitted breaching the accounts rules by holding client money without a client account.

In mitigation, the SRA acknowledged that Mr Asemota co-operated with its investigation, and had undertaken training on both anti-money laundering and the accounts rules.

His practising certificate is also subject to conditions preventing him from being a manager or owner or a firm or acting as a compliance officer.

Mr Boakye Yiadom also admitted his misconduct early and the SRA said he “took steps to amend and update policies, to ensure compliance with the relevant regulations”. His practicing certificate is subject to conditions as well.

The SRA said a fine was appropriate for both because their behaviour showed a “disregard” for their regulatory obligation to exercise proper management over the firm. Any lesser sanction “would not provide a credible deterrent”.

It initially set Mr Asemota’s fine at £3,500 but reduced it to £2,000 to reflect the solicitor’s early admission and the “insight” he had shown into his conduct. Mr Boakye Yiadom’s fine was reduced from £3,000 to £1,800 for the same reasons.

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