A solicitor who took money from vulnerable people for whom she was the court-appointed deputy – and even kept some of it in cash in her wardrobe – has been struck off after the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled that her conduct was more than just a “cry for help”.
Sharon Pallagi, who was born in 1976 and admitted as a solicitor in 2001, was an associate at Leeds firm Clarion from 2006 until 2013, when her employment was terminated due to what was discovered about her work.
The tribunal heard that Ms Pallagi made 15 unauthorised transfers in relation to four clients over the space of three years, withdrawing the money either as cash or as reimbursement of expenses incurred.
After discovery, she repaid the firm all the money, plus courts fees and legal costs following the issue of proceedings against her for recovery, a total of £32,561.
In relation to the largest withdrawal, of £12,000, she told the Solicitors Regulation Authority: “I accept responsibility for and also accept that I amended the documentation and acted dishonestly in doing this…
“I do remember the amendments and feeling very depressed and anxious, to the point that I was physically sick after amending the documents. Having this reaction meant there was recognition by me of doing something wrong, but I did nothing to rectify my actions.
“I was depressed and needed help. I left all of the amended documents on the file so that on a review I would be called to explain and at that time would get some help, but the reviews did not highlight my actions and this spurred on further erratic, out of character behaviour.”
Ms Pallagi admitted the three allegations against her and that she had been dishonest. In mitigation, she provided evidence about her health that the tribunal received in private, and said her actions had been an attempt to be found out so she could get help.
The tribunal recorded: “The respondent expressed remorse in her evidence and reminded the tribunal that, once she received appropriate medical treatment, she had done everything she could to put matters right. She had repaid the money, and apologised to both the firm and her clients. With appropriate medical treatment, the respondent stated she saw the devastation she had caused and even now she continued to think about what she could have done differently.”
Her advocate called on the tribunal to impose an indefinite suspension so that she could not return to work without evidence that she had the mental strength to withstand the “rigours of practice”.
However, the SDT decided that she had to be struck off. Her actions had taken place over a lengthy period of time and though she had had medical problems, the evidence showed that there were “periods of lucidity” during which “it would have been expected the respondent would have admitted her improper conduct, if it had indeed been ‘a cry for help’. She failed to do this”.
Similarly, Ms Pallagi admitted that the £6,000 she kept in her house got mixed up with her own money. “The tribunal took the view that had the respondent’s conduct been a genuine and desperate attempt to get some help, she would not have allowed the money to become mixed up with her own personal money and nor would she have used it.
“Whilst the respondent may have been deeply unhappy and under immense pressure at the time she made some of the unauthorised withdrawals, the tribunal did not accept that her conduct was indeed ‘a cry for help’ on all of the unauthorised withdrawals made… The pressure that the respondent was under and her difficulties at the time did not justify or excuse her actions.”
The SDT said: “The respondent had repeatedly taken advantage of vulnerable clients over a long period of time, and whilst she had repaid the money she had taken, this did not detract from the harm she had caused both to those clients and to the reputation of the profession.
“The tribunal concluded there were no exceptional circumstances in this case and accordingly the appropriate and proportionate sanction in this case was to strike the respondent’s name from the roll of solicitors. This was necessary in order to protect the public and maintain public confidence in the profession.”