A solicitor who made 'improper transfers’ from client accounts amounting to around £2 million has been struck off the roll in a judgment that reinforces the ‘sacrosanct’ nature of a client account.
According to a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) ruling Christopher Mark Howdle ‘harmed public confidence in the profession’ by failing to safeguard client money. He was also ordered to pay costs of £27,000.
The incidents took place from 2013 while Howdle, admitted in 1997, was a partner at two firms - Knights Solicitors LLP [of Staffordshire] and UK firm Freeths.
In May 2013, while at Knights, Howdle ‘inserted or caused to be inserted’ an incorrect purchase price of £245,000 on a stamp duty land tax form (SDLT1 form), when he knew that the true purchase price of the property was £745,000.
Between December 2013 and December 2014, when working at Freeths, he ‘made or caused to be made’ 14 improper withdrawals for the benefit of unrelated clients amounting to more than £980,000. Further, between November 2013 and April 2014, he made or caused to be made 11 improper withdrawals of client money for the benefit of unrelated clients, amounting to more than £1 million.
The tribunal said there was no evidence that the respondent had benefitted from the improper transfers.
Both firms had had to make repayments, as there were shortfalls on client account, the SDT found. It added that the two clients who paid the SDLT1 payment, named as ‘C’ and ‘M’, had thought that the correct amount had been paid only to receive correspondence to say that it had not, which would have 'caused them concern’.
In its ruling the SDT noted that the finding of dishonesty should warrant a strike off. 'Client account should be sacrosanct, and every solicitor should know that it is to be treated as sacrosanct. The respondent had made numerous improper payments from client account, and that made his misconduct particularly serious,’ the tribunal noted.
Howdle claimed that he was overworked, stressed and that a family member had had a significant accident.
However, according to the tribunal, he had not produced any medical evidence to support what he said.
Correction and apology
In an article published on 31 May 2018 entitled "Solicitors struck off for failing to safeguard "sacrosanct" client account", it was stated that one of the incidents took place while Mr Christopher Mark Howdle was a partner at "Kent-based Knights Solicitors". This should have referred to "Knights Solicitors LLP of Staffordshire". We wish to make clear that Mr Howdle has no past or present connection with Kent-based Knights Solicitors, and unreservedly apologise to Knights Solicitors of Tunbridge Wells for this error.