A solicitor struck off for overseeing a firm infiltrated by fraudsters has failed in an appeal against her sanction.
Deidre Newell-Austin had attempted to challenge her striking off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal following a three-day hearing in September 2016. She also contested the imposition of £85,000 Solicitors Regulation Authority costs.
The tribunal banned Newell-Austin after finding she had aided or failed to prevent certain individuals ‘infiltrating’ her London firm Austins Law and committing fraud.
As of February 2015, a total of £2.9m had been paid out to Austins' clients from the compensation fund, with other claims still outstanding.
Newell-Austin, a solicitor for 10 years and founder of the firm in 2011, recruited Najima Assroundi and Rashad Ahsan in early 2013 with a view to leaving the business. The two new members became partners in June 2013 but the firm was intervened into by the SRA just a month later following a complaint from another law firm, G & Co
Newell-Austin told the High Court that the tribunal had erred in failing to consider the ‘intentional state’ involving in a finding of lack of integrity. She also challenged whether she had acted without integrity and whether she had acted dishonestly when she neglected to tell the SRA that prospective new partners faced county court judgments and had been arrested over a conveyancing transaction.
Mr Justice Morris said the tribunal was entitled not to accept Newell-Austin’s alternative explanation for why she had failed to make disclosures. The judge said it was not true she had not thought to inform the SRA, and the tribunal found her oral evidence, given over five hours, was ‘not credible in general’.
Morris said the appeal had offered no reasons to explain why that credibility finding was mistaken.
The judge accepted the SRA’s submission that it was wrong to define lack of integrity as requiring recklessness, adding: ‘Lack of integrity does not necessarily involve risk-taking.’
He said the tribunal ‘plainly’ took account of the solicitor’s 'state of knowledge' and she was aware of the primary facts found.
The judge added: ‘The tribunal made express findings, that the risks of her actions (in recruiting partners in the way she did and for the purpose she did, and in failing to control unadmitted members of staff) were obvious and that she turned a blind eye to those risks.
‘This was a finding of recklessness on her part, and sufficient basis for a finding of lack of integrity.’
The court found none of the grounds of appeal was established and subsequently dismissed it.