A solicitor and her firm were responsible for using the client account to pay third parties involved in football transfers, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has heard.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority said today that London firm Mishcon de Reya and its former partner Elizabeth Ellen allowed for payments to transfer fixers who helped to push through deals involving a football club in 2011.
James Ramsden QC, for the SRA, told the tribunal that the use of the client account was not sufficiently connected with the provision of legal services and was therefore a breach of the rules.
He said that Ellen was not an inexperienced solicitor in the operation but rather an introducer of counter-parties and key part of five transactions under scrutiny from beginning to end.
Ramsden argued that Ellen, a football agent who went on to become partner and head of sport with the firm, was ‘front and centre of the process’ by which payments were made as part of multi-million pound transfers. The players and counter-parties are being kept anonymous during proceedings.
Ramsden said it was ‘unrealistic’ of Ellen to say she was not an integral element in what was happening and that she had made contact with the clients receiving payment before they came to the firm. He added: ‘To paint herself as a tiny cog, inexperienced and green behind the ears, at any point during these transactions is nothing short of misleading to this tribunal.’
The tribunal heard that the legitimate contracts drawn up by the firm were relatively simple processes, but the SRA alleged that it was beyond Mishcon’s remit to be involved in any payments to transfer go-betweens. The tribunal heard that this was often regarded as the ‘murky world’ of football but Ramsden said that the rules about what solicitors were permitted to do should apply nonetheless. He noted that a lawyer’s hair would ‘stand on end’ if they were asked to facilitate deals to pay third parties involved in procurement contract and that alarm bells should have been ringing here. He submitted that the involvement of the firm gave assurances to parties who did not necessarily trust each other that payments would be carried through.
‘[Football] is a huge business with huge vested interests and it is regarded by many as seeing itself to be treated differently to other businesses and industries,’ said Ramsden. ‘For those uncomfortable and unfamiliar with formality, it was necessary that the firm paid this money because otherwise the element of trust that was necessary to see the deal go through would not be there.’
Mishcon de Reya applied yesterday to have full submissions accepted by the tribunal – a position supported by the SRA but not by Ellen, who denies wrongdoing. The tribunal ruled that the late admissions were an ‘ambush’ on her and would be unfair. The firm has now reverted to its original pleadings of admitting to certain rule breaches in relation to four of the five transactions, but denying wrongdoing in relation to a fifth, and denying a breach of principle eight of the SRA principles (which relates to running a business with proper governance).
The tribunal heard today that Ellen, who has yet to give evidence, describes the SRA’s case as ‘incoherent and impermissible’. The hearing continues.