The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has opted to suspend a long-practising solicitor who held back money intended for experts to prop up his ailing firm.
Gerald Anthony Cumming, of Essex firm Cumming & Riley, racked up a cash shortage on the ledger of almost £39,000 through withholding a total of 41 payments for professional disbursements.
The money, received from the Legal Aid Agency, was instead spent on supporting the firm and paying staff wages.
Cumming admitted retaining monies in the office account, and the tribunal found this caused ‘significant’ harm, leaving individual experts unpaid and facing their own financial consequences as a result. The tribunal added: ‘Third party experts and suppliers needed to have confidence that when they were instructed by a solicitor, they would get paid for their services.’
The 62-year-old solicitor also admitted leaving the Solicitors Regulation Authority in the dark for more than 18 months after his firm got into financial difficulties towards the end of 2014. A bankruptcy petition was presented by HM Revenue and Customs in March 2016 but Cumming did not make the SRA aware of his troubles or his bankruptcy until it was confirmed in July 2016. The firm was intervened into by the SRA in August 2016.
The tribunal noted that, as sole principal of the firm, Cumming ought to have informed the SRA of his circumstances in advance of his bankruptcy and automatic suspension from practise, and in not doing so he had failed to run his business with sound risk management principles. He was suspended for nine months and ordered to pay £9,000 in costs.
Cumming, setting out his mitigation in a letter to the SRA, explained he had been required to sell the family home following bankruptcy and move to a different part of the country. He had worked, in compliance with conditions, as a solicitor from September 2016 to June this year without any complaints.
He had been a solicitor for 37 years and realistically could find work in only this profession given his age and experience. He had no intention of working alone and was content to continue working under conditions on his practising certificate.
Cumming said he had been ‘trying desperately’ to resolve the firm’s financial issues and was owed a substantial sum by the LAA.
His explanation also highlighted potential issues with the SRA’s monitoring of firms. Cumming noted qualified accountants’ reports were submitted for 2012-2015, referring to unpaid disbursements.
The tribunal asked why the SRA had not investigated matters sooner: the regulator said the delay was ‘regrettable’ but could not give a definitive answer.