An experienced solicitor whose firm held funds from her holiday home sideline has been fined £15,000 by a tribunal. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard Valerie Walton-Knowles used her firm’s credit card machine to receive monies from customers of her caravan and bed and breakfast business, with funds going into the client bank account.
This practice ceased only upon the Solicitors Regulation Authority opening an investigation into the firm in April 2016.
According to an outcome agreed between the SRA and Walton-Knowles, the regulator said she must have appreciated that her actions posed a risk to the position of clients as it was not possible to accurately verify that all entries on the ledger for the other business did not include any money from legal clients.
The family solicitor, 58, has practised on her own account since 1995 under the style of Brooke Williams Solicitors Limited based in York and had been the firm’s compliance officer for legal practice from 2012.
Walton-Knowles was alleged to have permitted, over the course of four years, more than £100,000 to be paid into and held in her firm’s client bank account without any underlying transaction. The money related to her caravan park and bed and breakfast business.
The SRA also alleged she failed to establish and maintain proper accounting systems and proper controls over those systems. Walton-Knowles admitted the allegations in their entirety, including having acted recklessly, and accepted the firm was using the client bank account as a banking facility.
She said she knew this was not allowed by SRA accounts rules, but she did it to use the firm’s facility for taking credit card payments, starting with small amounts. Walton-Knowles told investigators she was ‘shocked’ to learn how much had been paid by her separate business.
In mitigation, Walton-Knowles said she ‘deeply regrets’ this matter had arisen, and she wanted the tribunal to be aware there were no adverse consequences for members of the public and no allegations of dishonesty made against her. No clients complained in respect of these matters and she has successfully passed her legal aid audit without any qualifications on the contract.
She stressed she had not tried to hide any matters from the SRA, and had taken notice of all the advice received from the regulator and implemented in full its recommendations. As well as the fine, she agreed to pay the £10,800 SRA costs.