Tribunal clears conveyancer over allegations of AML dishonesty

AML: Solicitor was over-reliant on her practice manager husband

A solicitor accused of not having a firm-wide anti-money laundering (AML) risk assessment in place and lying about it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), has been cleared by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The tribunal said the evidence suggested that Maya Nisa-Zaman “had thought about the risks presented by money laundering, and she had put in place processes to counter such risks”.

The assessment “may not have been a form or format considered usual by the SRA”.

Ms Nisa-Zaman, who qualified in 2011, is a sole practitioner at MZ Law in Birmingham dealing primarily with conveyancing. Her husband, Gulab, is the practice manager.

She told the SDT that AML was “in her mind on every conveyancing transaction” and that she took her professional duties to the SRA and lenders “extremely seriously”.

She explained how she had used a file information form on every matter since the firm opened in 2016 to ensure she was complying with the AML requirements.

When, in December 2019, the SRA asked every law firm to declare that it had a compliant firm-wide risk assessment, Ms Nisa-Zaman did so.

But when the regulator sought evidence of it in the course of a separate investigation, the solicitor first sent an uncompleted template provided by the SRA which had been downloaded that day and then, when questioned about this, a subsequent version of the template backdated to before it was actually published.

Ms Nisa-Zaman explained that, on the first occasion, the firm’s scanner was not working properly, and she had asked her husband to download the form from the SRA website; he believed it was identical to the template they had been using.

On the second occasion, they could not find a copy of the risk assessment, and he downloaded the updated version from the SRA website, which he then backdated several month to January 2020 as this was when the firm’s new policy was put in place following discussions he had had with other solicitors in the area.

The documents had not been saved to the Cloud but remained as Word documents on computers lost after being damaged by an office fire, Ms Nisa-Zaman said.

The SRA did not believe the solicitor’s version of events and accused her of making it up.

Ms Nisa-Zaman said she had been “devastated” by the SRA’s dishonesty allegations. “The worry had caused her difficulty sleeping and she was prescribed sleeping tablets by her GP and the investigation played continually on her mind, causing her considerable stress.”

Her counsel, Rory Dunlop KC, told the SDT that what had happened were “mistakes from a hard-pressed, stressed and anxious professional with integrity who, at worst, delegated a little too much to her husband and replied to SRA emails a little too fast and with not enough care”.

He added that “the SRA’s account of sustained and prolonged deception, for no obvious motive, was implausible and certainly less likely than the defence case”.

The tribunal agreed with Mr Dunlop. It found Ms Nisa-Zaman to be a “credible witness”.

“She was clearly a busy solicitor who was highly regarded by her peers in the profession and by others as illustrated by the character evidence called on her behalf. She had an exemplary record and the files examined by the SRA during its investigation were found to be flawless.

“Her account had revealed, however, an over reliance on her husband, Gulab, as practice manager.”

His evidence, by contrast, was “vague and he appeared to lack specific knowledge of fundamental details which, as practice manger, he would have reasonably been expected to possess”, the SDT observed.

While Ms Nisa-Zaman may have “misremembered events” and confused in her mind a mortgage fraud prevention document she had created in 2017 with the risk assessment, “her evidence demonstrated that it had been her genuinely held view that there had been a compliant risk assessment in place at the material time”.

The SRA’s evidence was not “sufficiently strong to render her account of events as being unlikely” – it had not discharged the burden of proof with respect to dishonesty.

“Whilst questions might be asked of Ms Nisa-Zaman’s organisation and the storage of important documents, the tribunal found that the loss of such documents in the circumstances set out by Ms Nisa-Zaman and Gulab was credible.”

Neither party applied for costs, even though the SRA can do so even if a prosecution fails on the grounds that it prosecutes in the public interest.

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