A sole practitioner has been allowed to continue in practise after a tribunal found her rule breaches were largely down to outdated accounting software.
Sarah Lesley Watson, who traded under the name of Watson Legal from Chelmsford in Essex, was cleared of dishonesty after the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found she had unwittingly followed incorrect procedure on transferring funds.
The tribunal accepted that Watson was beset by problems with her accounting software and that she was a ‘passionate, caring and in many respects competent solicitor’, who was unlikely to repeat her mistakes. She was handed a suspended one-year ban and ordered to pay £15,000 costs.
Watson was charged with a string of accounts rule breaches, including making 71 incorrect or improper transfers from client to office account, withdrawing around £1,000 from the client account to pay staff wages, and retaining disbursement monies worth more than £4,000 from five client matters.
The tribunal heard she accepted there had been breaches of the firm’s regulatory obligations but she denied dishonesty. Instead there had been honest mistakes caused by cumbersome and antiquated accounting software and a genuine belief the firm was entitled to transfer monies.
Watson, representing herself, denied the firm had used the client account to prop up the business and submitted that many of the breaches were the result of simple human error. She pointed to the assistance and co-operation she gave to the SRA during the investigation as evidence of her integrity.
The tribunal accepted that software used by the firm had been a ‘nightmare to use’ and noted that no client had ever complained about not receiving a bill before a transfer had been made.
There was no evidence found that Watson deliberately mis-entered data in the system, but the software was ultimately unsuitable for her needs and had let her down.
Watson had denied failing to inform the SRA that her firm was in financial trouble as she did not believe the situation was that serious. The tribunal found against her on this allegation, saying she tried to ‘trade through’ difficulties rather than flag them up with the SRA as she should have done.