Three solicitors – including a trainee who insisted she was acting under instructions – have been struck off after an investigation uncovered false bills, misappropriated client funds and misled regulators.
Jonathan Ippazio De Vita and Christopher John Platt, partners at the closed North Lincolnshire firm De Vita Platt, were banned by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after panel members found allegations of dishonesty proved. The tribunal said both had been motivated by self-enrichment, their misconduct was planned, and each had breached the trust of clients.
A third individual, Emily Scott, who was a trainee solicitor with the firm before leaving in November 2014, was also struck off despite the tribunal expressing ‘considerable sympathy’. Scott, who had blown the whistle on misconduct within the firm, had been found to have carried out her superiors’ instructions as she wanted to stay in her job. But citing the High Court’s judgment in James, the tribunal added: ‘The fact that [Scott] was under pressure and working in a horrendous environment could not excuse [her] dishonesty.’
The tribunal heard submissions from the Solicitors Regulation Authority that the firm had overcharged one client by 492%. The regulator's evidence was based on a report from a costs lawyer and the figure was described by the SRA as an ‘extraordinary amount… so high that it must be deliberate and could not be an oversight’.
Platt denied deliberately overcharging clients and stated that he believed the work was being carried out as Scott had told him this. This was contradicted by evidence from Scott and his defence was rejected by the tribunal, with the allegation of dishonesty found proved.
The tribunal said in one matter there was ‘no evidence’ of anything approaching the amount of work that would have been needed to justify the bills being raised, and Platt knew the bills generated did not reflect work done.
Platt was also found to have drawn down funds, and/or instructed Scott to draw down funds, worth £6,500 from a client’s legal funding loan without the client’s knowledge or permission. Further allegations proved against Platt included causing or allowing a shortage on the client account and failing to properly supervise Scott.
The tribunal found it not proved that De Vita completed a certificate of identity form with an incorrect date with the intention to mislead HM Land Registry. But he was found to have falsely claimed to have met the clients at his office. He was further found to have acted recklessly in causing or allowing a £44,000 shortage on one client account.
Scott admitted she had raised bills for work not carried out, and failed to initially report the misconduct, but told the tribunal she acted ‘under duress and under the instruction of [Platt] and not through choice’. She feared for her job if she made a report as it would have been obvious who had done it.
The tribunal found the mere act of her typing a bill was not the same as raising one and she was cleared of misconduct for this. But she was found to have acted dishonestly when, acting under the instruction of Platt, she falsified and backdated letters forming part of a file to be sent to the Legal Ombudsman after a client had complained.
The 81-page tribunal judgment followed a four-day hearing attended by Scott but not by Platt or De Vita. The partners were ordered to jointly pay £143,457 in costs, with Scott ordered to pay £2,077.