The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has rejected an appeal by a solicitor against a £1,000 fine imposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for breaching a written agreement he made during probate litigation.
Though the agreement was not a formal undertaking, it contained many of the same elements, the tribunal said.
Errol Richard Shulman was appointed in his professional capacity as personal representative of ‘Mr U’, who died in December 1999, and he instructed his firm, Chesham & Co in North London, to act for him.
Singletons Solicitors, instructed by Mrs U, complained to the SRA in September 2017 that Mr Shulman was in breach of a court order made earlier that year relating to Mr U’s estate.
Mr Shulman denied this but was sent a letter of advice by an investigating officer from the SRA saying that he had broken the rules, although no further action would be taken on the basis that the failure to comply with the order had arisen due to a misunderstanding as to its terms.
Singletons complained to the SRA again about Mr Shulman in December 2018, this time alleging that he had failed to comply with the terms of a written agreement made during the probate litigation.
In particular, it alleged that Mr Shulman had failed to register the transfer of a property to Mrs U as agreed. An SRA adjudicator upheld the complaint, fining Mr Shulman £1,000, plus costs of £600, a decision confirmed by an adjudication panel.
He appealed on to the SDT, arguing among other things that the SRA had failed to employ “commercial common sense” in construing the agreement, the agreement did not amount to an undertaking, and the SRA was biased.
The tribunal said: “The nature and extent of the obligations placed on both parties by the letter were plain from its face, and there were no additional considerations, commercial or otherwise, which needed to be brought to bear in order to interpret the terms of the agreement.”
Although the adjudication panel described the written agreement made in the probate litigation as a “signed bilateral agreement” as opposed to a professional undertaking, the tribunal said it contained “all of the constituent elements of an undertaking”.
The SDT said “ultimately it mattered not” whether the agreement was an undertaking because the SRA found that Mr Shulman “did not do what he said he would do” – sign and then submit the transfer to the Land Registry within 14 days of receiving it from Mrs U.
The SDT said the panel was entitled to find that a distinction Mr Shulman drew between his roles as solicitor and personal representative was “artificial and/or academic”.
Mr Shulman argued that the SRA had demonstrated bias in an email sent by a member of staff to Singletons.
This said: “Having looked at the decision and the additional information that you have sent in, I have decided that we should reopen the investigation and make some further enquiries with a view to imposing a regulatory sanction.”
The tribunal considered the email “clumsily worded”, in that it could be read as suggesting that the SRA had “pre-determined the outcome” of the SRA’s investigation.
But it said the email was intended “to explain to the complainant the SRA’s processes and that the imposition of a regulatory sanction could be the conclusion of the investigation”. The allegation of bias was rejected.
The SDT dismissed Mr Shulman’s appeal and ordered him to pay costs of £2,300.
The tribunal rejected his request to stay its order pending an appeal.