The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has lifted a condition on a former law firm boss who admitted she had “permitted herself to be manipulated” by a timeshare scheme.
Melanie Claire Hammond was fined £5,000 by the SDT in 2014 and a condition imposed on her practising certificate preventing her from being a sole practitioner or law firm partner.
The SDT said that Ms Hammond, admitted in 2001, had been one of three partners at Frank Howard Solicitors, closed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in 2012.
Ms Hammond acted for a business which “said they planned to purchase timeshares from individuals who deposited money with the firm”.
The law firm was entitled to a percentage of this money in respect of fees, but no timeshare purchases ever took place.
The tribunal said Ms Hammond allowed herself and the law firm to be “associated with the scheme which had many of the hallmarks of a scam”. She failed to make “adequate enquiries or refuse the relationship in a timely manner”, though she was “naïve rather than complicit in any wrongdoing”.
Ms Hammond admitted failure to maintain accounting records, failing to provide a proper standard of service and notify the SRA that her firm was in serious financial difficulty.
Applying for the condition to be removed, she told the tribunal the fact that she was “in a vulnerable position” at the time “was partly of her own making” as she took on ownership of the firm with only nine years’ post-qualification experience.
Ms Hammond said that, in the time that had since elapsed, “she had learned from her experience and she had become extremely cautious regarding the type of work she now took on”.
She was working as a locum conveyancing solicitor, an area of work “she enjoyed and in which she had built up a reputation for being thorough and conscientious”.
Ms Hammond said that, whenever a conveyancing transaction was completed, law firms were required to conduct a search via Lawyer Checker, which revealed the condition on her practising certificate.
The search result was “recorded on the transaction file”, a cause of “further embarrassment and distress as she was again obliged to explain the reason for the imposition of the condition to personnel from other firms”.
Ms Hammond said she had received offers to become a partner or manager in the firms where she had worked in recent years, and “whilst she did not have any immediate plans to become a partner or manager of a firm, the existence of the condition upon her practising certificate prevented her from even considering it as an option or having any choice or control over her future”.
The SRA initially opposed the application to lift the condition but, “on receipt of Ms Hammond’s further submissions”, change its position.
The tribunal said: “Whilst the original breaches had no doubt been serious, dishonesty and lack of integrity had not been alleged and there was no evidence of any further misconduct on Ms Hammond’s part.
“With respect to the level of insight, the tribunal considered this to be very high and genuine. She had been open and honest to those with whom she worked as a locum, as indeed she was required to be, and she had reflected deeply on the causes of the misconduct and about ways she could overcome and address such issues in the future.
“She was now much more careful, risk averse and sensibly sought out advice when it was necessary to do so.”
The SDT said it did not consider, “based on the evidence before it, that there was any continuing risk to the public” from removal of the condition.
The tribunal ordered that the application to remove the condition on Ms Hammond’s practising certificate be granted and she pay the costs of the application of £1,500.