A disciplinary tribunal has refused to lift practising conditions imposed on a solicitor who breached a catalogue of accounts rules while specialising in conveyancing work.
The tribunal accepted the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) argument that Norbert Ekene Ohanugo had failed to demonstrate adequately that he had been rehabilitated since being suspended for a year in 2012.
It said that in order to protect the public, it was necessary to continue imposing restrictions on his practising certificate.
These mean he cannot be an owner or manager of a firm and must have his employment approved by the SRA. It took him until 2017 to find an employer willing to take him on given his disciplinary record.
Accounts rules breached by Mr Ohanugo while practising as a sole practitioner and in a partnership included transferring sums from client to office account, failing to keep proper accounting records, and passing on the proceeds of a sale to a third party, rather than the client, without written authority.
He also failed to explain to a lender client how the balance of a purchase price was being provided, although he had reasonable grounds to suspect it came from a third party.
Mr Ohanugo was just looking to remove the condition requiring SRA approval; he said he wanted to switch to immigration work, which meant he needed to move to a firm with a legal aid franchise, but complained that the time taken by the SRA to approve new employment had led to employers taking on other recruits.
He provided to the tribunal evidence of rehabilitation, including proof of having taken management courses and an online course on the latest accounts rules, along with a letter from his employer supporting the application.
The solicitor claimed to be “remorseful, insightful and contrite”, which was backed by testimonials from his current employer and two of his peers.
He pointed out he had kept a clean regulatory record since 2013. He said he had taken steps to address his failures and no longer posed a risk to the public.
However, the SRA opposed the application, arguing the solicitor had not provided any evidence of employment, if any, between the end of his suspension in 2013 and working for his current firm.
It submitted the testimonials were insufficient, as were evidence of having taken courses that would help with a firm’s compliance obligations. Nor had he provided any evidence that he no longer posed a risk to the public.
Denying the application, the tribunal recorded it was not satisfied that Mr Ohanugo had undertaken rehabilitation at his current firm that adequately addressed his failings.
The testimonials were too general and vague. “None of the statements specifically addressed the risk, or otherwise, to the public and the legal profession were the conditions to be removed,” it said.
It noted he had practised for only 15 months since 2012, which was not long enough to demonstrate rehabilitation.
However, it agreed the four to five months he claimed it had taken the SRA to approve his employment was too long and “subverted the purpose” of the restrictions he was under.
“This in turn could hamper his ability demonstrably to evidence remedial steps taken and rehabilitation in support of any future application,” it said.
The SRA said the applications took so long because of the need to ask follow-up questions; the tribunal expressed hope that, if an application for approval was submitted in the correct form in future, the SRA would consider it “without delay”.
It concluded: “The risk to the public and the reputation of the profession was the tribunal’s paramount concern and took precedence over any inconvenience or impact on the applicant or on future employers…
“The imposition of restrictions on the applicant’s practising certificate continued to be appropriate and proportionate in this case. They were required to protect the public and maintain confidence in the reputation of the profession.”
It ordered that Mr Ohanugo also pay costs of £2,123.