A criminal defence solicitor who said he struggled to run his practice under the pressure of relying on legal aid rates has agreed he should be struck off the roll.
Keith John O’Neill, a sole practitioner with Dorset firm Andrews McQueen, accepted he made various improper transfers from client to office accounts, and retained funds for unpaid professional disbursements in the office bank account.
In an agreed outcome with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, O'Neill will remove himself from the roll and undertake not to seek re-admission.
O’Neill told the tribunal it became ‘increasingly difficult’ to manage his professional conduct obligations whilst relying on criminal legal aid work. He accepted the management of his practice suffered as a result.
The tribunal heard that O’Neill had been a solicitor for more than 37 years and began trading a sole practitioner in 2014. But following SRA inspections of the account the firm was intervened into and closed in February last year.
It had been alleged O’Neill transferred or allowed the transfer of almost £5,000 from client to office accounts to purportedly pay bills that were in fact illegitimate. These bills were raised to wipe out the balances on client ledgers.
He also accepted failing to adequately investigate accounting matters raised with the SRA, and failing to disclose to his professional indemnity insurer he was subject to an ongoing SRA investigation.
In an interview with investigators, O’Neill stated the transfer of funds was an exercise to clear old balances, but they related to legitimate costs incurred. He did not transfer the funds back to the client account on advice from his accountant.
In mitigation, not endorsed by the SRA, he said it was always his genuine intention to comply with all rules and guidance. He accepted the mechanism he chose to transfer monies was improper, but stated his belief this was money properly payable to the firm. He said his health had suffered since intervention and he was adjudged bankrupt last July. Costs of around £33,000 were agreed between O’Neill and the SRA, although in practice this will not be collected unless the tribunal makes a further order.