An experienced solicitor who acted in a “surprisingly incompetent manner” has been heavily fined for failing to clarify whether instructions from a client living in Pakistan were genuine.
Sarinjit Singh Bahia also allowed the proceeds of a property sale to be given to a third party without authorisation.
However, fining him £30,000, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) accepted the plea that while he may have been negligent, he had not acted recklessly or realised what risks he was taking.
Mr Bahia, the owner of Consilium Legal in Birmingham, was admitted in 1993.
In October 2013, he was instructed to sell a Birmingham property. The owner, ‘AS’, lived in Pakistan and a power of attorney (POA) was purportedly signed there, allowing a relative, ‘OA’, to act in relation to the sale. There had been the same arrangement the previous year on the sale of a different property.
In January 2014, Mr Bahia drafted a variation to the POA at OA’s request, allowing the latter to distribute any proceeds at his discretion. However, it was never sent directly to AS, and left to OA to deliver to him.
When OA returned the POA, it appeared to be signed by AS and have been attested by his local lawyer in Pakistan, but the attestation stamp pre-dated the creation of the document. Mr Bahia said later that it was assumed this was a mistake, but he did not check this himself with AS or the Pakistani lawyer.
Some time that year, OA changed his name. When the property sale eventually went through, proceeds of more than £100,000 were paid into accounts belonging to OA in both his old and new names. AS complained he had not given these instructions.
The solicitor was charged with recklessly failing to make enquiries of AS or his local lawyer, independently of OA.
He admitted to the tribunal that he had exercised poor judgement, saying he would nowadays do his utmost to contact the client direct and check his local advocate’s professional credentials thoroughly.
But he denied he had acted recklessly, with which the SDT agreed. Because he had known OA for years, he trusted him – it did not cross the solicitor’s mind that AS had not given the instructions, the tribunal ruled.
While it found Mr Bahia “a credible, frank and honest witness”, it “did not believe [OA’s] evidence at all”.
It said Mr Bahia had been “very naïve in giving important documents to OA to deliver to AS”, given that the revised POA was for OA’s benefit. He should have contacted AS directly to check that the changes reflected his instructions.
While had had “failed to act in AS’s best interests and had failed to protect AS’s assets” and perhaps even behaved in a “stupid manner”, he had nevertheless “not been aware that a risk existed or would exist”.
However, while he had not planned the misconduct, his culpability was high as he had “failed to take the basic steps that would be expected of a solicitor who was due to act under the terms of a [POA]”
In mitigation, the solicitor’s misconduct was isolated and he had shown “insight and remorse”. There was also no evidence that AS had actually suffered loss.
The SDT added: “It did appear to the tribunal that the respondent may have been used, and indeed may have been deceived, by third parties who had nefarious intentions, but nevertheless he could have prevented this, had he taken the proper steps he should have done.”
Overall his misconduct was “very serious” and he had “acted in a surprisingly incompetent manner for a solicitor of his experience and ability”.
The reputation of the profession had been damaged because the police had investigated possible fraud, although in the event it did not take matters further.
Fining him £30,000, plus £18,412 costs, the tribunal concluded he “had been a very experienced solicitor… yet he had not identified what was, with the benefit of hindsight, obvious when he should have known better”.