A solicitor who allowed a website to promote his firm before he had secured any authorisation has been fined £10,000. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled that Benny Poothavelil was motivated by a desire to establish and grow his firm and allowed the website benmarklaw.com to appear online, despite a request from the Solicitors Regulation Authority to remove it.
The site itself, giving the impression that Ben & Mark Solicitors was a regulated practice, described an ‘award-winning international law firm with offices in London, Cochin and with associate offices in USA, Finland and New Delhi’. An authorisation application received by the SRA after the website went up stated the firm would actually operate from an office in Carlisle, and Poothavelil subsequently confirmed no award was ever won.
The website also stated that the firm recruited lawyers who were ‘not only technically capable but also commercially astute’. However the SRA application mentioned only one individual who would be working at the firm (Poothavelil himself).
The misconduct came to light in July 2016 after a report to the SRA that the website was operating, leading to a bogus firm alert being published on the regulator’s site. Poothavelil had actually contacted the SRA to ask for the alert to be removed and he claimed to have asked to suspend his website in October 2016. The SRA submitted the website continued to be available until January 2017.
Poothavelil was also found by the tribunal to have accepted instructions from a client to act on a conveyancing transaction in which he was not authorised to do so.
Poothavelil submitted that he had not allowed or authorised any company to host the website and had only asked for a demonstration site after meeting with a software provider whilst he was in India. He claimed to have been forbidden access to the site at the time the SRA asked for it to be taken down and was surprised it could still be accessed.
As for the site itself, there was no mention that the firm was SRA approved, and Poothavelil said he could not be held responsible for the content.
The tribunal concluded that Poothavelil, who was admitted in March 2012 and previously qualified and practised in India, was inexperienced in setting up a firm in England and sought no advice about doing so before allowing the website to go online. As well as a fine, Poothavelil was also barred from practising as a sole practitioner or as the owner of an authorised firm, and he was ordered to pay £7,500 costs.