Trainee conveyancer “used skills” in school place fraud

Shah: Higher culpability

A trainee conveyancer who used her professional skills to forge sale contracts and tenancy agreements to try and get her son into an in-demand school has been handed a suspended jail sentence.

Bhakti Shah, 38, pretended she was living at a home owned by an elderly couple because it was within the catchment area of Mill Hill County High School in north London.

She created fake energy and council tax accounts for the house and collected post from the real owners, explaining it had been delivered to them by mistake.

Willesden Magistrates’ Court heard that Angela and Christopher Cole, both 82, were astonished to find they were building up council tax arrears when they had always paid their bill promptly.

Ms Shah admitted eight counts of using a false instrument with intent it be accepted as genuine between 29 October 2021 and 20 May 2022. The prosecution was brought by Barnet council

She was yesterday sentenced to 20 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months. She must also carry out 150 hours of unpaid community work and participate in 10 days of rehabilitation activity.

She was working two jobs: as a paralegal while training to become a conveyancer and a council tax recovery officer at Bromley council.

District Judge Lorraine McDonagh told her: “I do find this case clearly demonstrates a higher culpability due to the sophisticated nature of the fraud. You used your skills as a trainee conveyancer to commit this fraud.

“Whilst I acknowledge the stress and anxiety caused to the residents, I do not find greater harm to be present in this particular case.

“I do take into account that you are very remorseful. I do find, however, that these offences do cross the custodial threshold. I am satisfied there is a realistic prospect of rehabilitation in this case.”

The judge told Ms Shah, who is now unemployed, she must also pay £2,500 in costs with a £128 surcharge.

Prosecutor Parina Patel told the court: ‘There was some planning involved. She has used parts of her knowledge as having both a role within the council… and a trainee conveyancer.”

Mill Hill County is one of the most popular schools in Barnet. In 2022/23, it received 1,303 applications for 273 places.

Ms Shah lived 3.4 miles away from the school, but her ex-partner had purchased a piece of land at the rear of a property in Edgware that was 1.1 miles away – 158 places at the school were allocated to those who lived within 1.3 miles.

She applied for a place on the basis that she was planning to build a property on the land and move in. But the plot was landlocked and had no access to a road.

The council’s admissions team rejected the application, saying it could only be based on her current address.

Ms Shah changed her story and said she did in fact live at the property in front of her piece of land, which was owned by the Coles.

Ms Shah registered a water and council tax account at the property, editing an email from EDF Energy to contain the postcode of the other property, produced a fake water bill and created a false contract of sale and land registry form.

She initially put the wrong house number on the fake contract of sale and had submit another one, leading to a further offence.

The council tax account resulted in the real occupiers having to pay more each month.

When the council did not believe she had moved house, she created a false tenancy agreement showing she was renting out her real property.

She was actually a tenant herself and her landlord confirmed she lived at the address throughout.

The court heard that there were discrepancies in the paperwork she uploaded, which the schools admissions team decided warranted further investigation.

Ms Shah’s lawyer, Daniel Cavaglieri, a solicitor-advocate at Sonn Macmillan Walker, said her son had failed to get into a different school because he failed the entrance exam.

“Her plan was to move into a property on that land but she was informed her application had no hope. She wholeheartedly accepts that what she did was wrong.”

Mr Cavaglieri added: “The utter shame she feels… has shocked her to her core. There’s devastation she’s caused to her children, who are all old enough to be aware of this. She’s really going to struggle to find a decent career.”

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