The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has banned several non-solicitors from working in the profession after they tried to cover up errors by backdating documents.
The orders under section 43 of the Solicitors Act 1974 – or under section 99 of the Legal Services Act 2007 in the case of alternative business structures – mean they can only work for a law firm with its permission.
Claire Ann Lockhart worked at Plymouth firm Curtis Law from 2011, and in the second half of 2016 acted for ‘Client A’ on the purchase of a residential property.
According to an SRA notice published yesterday, searches revealed that access to the property was via an unregistered accessway over which there was no documented right of way. To protect Client A’s interests, an ‘absence of easement’ insurance policy should have been, but was not, obtained on completion.
In February 2018, Client A contacted Ms Lockhart to ask about the accessway. Ms Lockhart reviewed the file and replied to confirm that the policy was in place.
The following day she emailed a scanned copy of the policy dated 10 November 2016, a few days before completion.
But that day she also paid £110 of her own money into the firm’s client account, sent a letter to the insurer, ‘GCS’, enclosing a cheque for the premium of £110, and sent the completed policy to GCS, dated 28 February 2018.
Five months later, Client A emailed about the accessway and the policy. Ms Lockhart replied that there was a problem with the policy, “explaining that an unnamed assistant was at fault for not ordering it and that they had backdated the policy when discovering their mistake”.
Ms Lockhart claimed to have been unaware of the problem until she reviewed the file on 22 July, explaining that, as far as she knew, the policy was ordered on completion.
She then emailed GCS, offering the same explanation. It replied that the commencement date for the policy was 28 February 2018, and that it had been issued from a policy pack which was only released in September 2017.
Client A reported their concerns to the SRA in March 2020. During its investigation, Ms Lockhart admitted completing and backdating the policy. She resigned in November 2020 and no longer works in legal practice.
She admitted misleading the client and GCS, and that her conduct was dishonest.
The SRA said the section 43 order was appropriate because her conduct was “not compatible with the ethical behaviour the SRA expects of everyone that it regulates and undermines trust and confidence in legal services”.
Meanwhile, David Coleman worked as a conveyancing assistant at London firm Rooks Rider for 24 years until he was dismissed for gross misconduct in 2020.
The SRA found that, in August 2019, Mr Coleman dishonestly told a lender client that he had sent certain documents to it 10 months earlier when he knew he had not. He amended the date on an email originally dated 1 August 2019 to support the statement.
Imran Khan (also known as Imran Khan Hussain and Haji Muhammed Khan) worked as a paralegal at Halifax firm Din Solicitors for a year before being dismissed for gross misconduct in February 2021.
The regulator said he missed a deadline for serving his clients’ disclosure list on a litigation matter, which he dishonestly tried to conceal by creating and backdating a letter and sending it to the defendant’s solicitors.
The SRA has entered into a regulatory settlement agreement with Rebecca Murray, a former legal assistant at Potter Rees in Manchester, to impose a section 43 order on her.
The agreement recorded that, in November 2019, she was instructed to make a payment to a creditor on a client’s matter. Two months later, a partner asked for confirmation that it had been made, which she said it had been – but only on the day when the partner had sent the email.
Ms Murray said it had not been made earlier because the creditor had not replied to a letter she sent in November asking for further details about the debt. She attached a copy of the letter, but it later emerged that she had created and backdated the letter because of the partner’s inquiries.
Ms Murray resigned in June 2020 prior to disciplinary proceedings. She admitted to the SRA what she had done.
Away from backdating documents, the SRA also imposed a section 43 order on Fariya Ahmed, a personal injury fee-earner at Cheshire firm Bott & Co for a year before she was dismissed in May 2020.
In September 2019, she was convicted of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour with intent to cause a police officer harassment, alarm or distress. The offence was found to be racially aggravated.
Ms Ahmed was sentenced to a community order for 60 hours unpaid work.
Finally, Ebony Jude Thomas had been a legal secretary at Hartlepool firm Tilly Bailey & Irvine for three and a half years until March 2021, when she was dismissed for gross misconduct.
Later in the year, she was convicted of stealing collectable war medals of an unknown value from a client.
She was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, suspended for 24 months, and ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £156 and compensation to the victim of £500, as well as undertake a rehabilitation activity of 40 days.
Soon after, Ms Thomas was convicted of theft of jewellery worth £10,000 from a client. She was sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, an unpaid work requirement of 200 hours and a rehabilitation activity of 10 days.