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The Divisional Court upheld the decision of the Solicitors Regulation Authority that this was a serious breach and found that the sanctions imposed, namely an 18 month suspension and an order for costs of £10,000, had been appropriate in the circumstances.
The solicitor had acted for his wife in relation to a number of transactions on a property, the last being the sale of the said property to his brother. The Solicitors Regulation Authority conducted an investigation into the firm’s book of account. There were a number of payments made into and out of the office account and client account with no corresponding narratives in the ledger to establish their propriety. The tribunal held that the breach was serious, that it had been hard to trace funds, that it could not be established what had been paid to individuals, when or why. Importantly the panel also found that the solicitor had demonstrated no insight into the need for transparency and protection of client accounts.
In the context of such a serious breach of rules, critical to the lawful operation of client accounts, the panel were right to have primary regard to the need to maintain public confidence in the reputation of the profession. If a suspension was rightly imposed, which it was here, it would remain so irrespective of the consequences against the individual registrant.
On a slightly separate issue the Divisional Court made it clear that there had been no unfairness in the tribunal’s failure to explicitly state that it was considering suspension. The tribunal had stated that the breach was a serious one, which was sufficient to alert the representative to the full range of penalties available.
This case highlights how seriously tribunals view breaches of administrative duties even if no dishonesty or benefit is found. It also reminds advocates to be aware of and address all the potential sanctions available even if a tribunal have failed to state they are considering a certain option.
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