A solicitor who was hoodwinked by a bogus employee, resulting in the dissipation of over £1m of client money, has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and ordered to pay £15,000 in costs.
Johnbosco Eberechuckwu Onyeme, admitted in 2004, hired ‘Solicitor A’ after she called and offered to do conveyancing work for his one-man practice, World Secure Solicitors Limited. According to the tribunal judgment, Onyeme had never met Solicitor A but knew her practice area was crime, rather than conveyancing. He obtained a copy of her practising certificate, driving licence and a utility bill, but did not ask for a CV or references.
The respondent asserted that it was ‘commonplace in the black community to hire a solicitor if it can be shown that there is a practising certificate and the person can earn fees for the firm.’
Solicitor A, who had stolen the identity of a genuine solicitor according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, subsequently became ‘knowingly involved in fraudulent transactions’. The SRA alleged that over the course of two property transaction a total of £1.2m was transferred from the client account to third parties who were not entitled to the funds.
The SRA also alleged that Onyeme failed to maintain client ledgers and, in relation to two further transactions, authorised the transfer of sums received into the firm’s client account in the absence of any evidence that there was a genuine underlying transaction.
The tribunal found that Onyeme was ‘in some respects a victim’ but had ‘by his failures, allowed Solicitor A to perpetrate the frauds through his firm’.
‘He had allowed himself and the firm to be manipulated resulting in the misappropriation of client monies. He had acted with manifest incompetence in relation to some payments of client monies to people who were not entitled to it. He had been completely reckless in relation to payments on Property 3 and Property 4 to people who had absolutely no right to that money,’ the tribunal said.
It stressed, however, that Onyeme had believed that the transactions were genuine and legitimate, and that he had not acted dishonestly.
The tribunal ordered that Onyeme be struck off the roll of solicitors and pay costs of £15,000.