A solicitor who recorded 529 hours for a piece of probate work lasting a fraction of that has been suspended from practice for nine months.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal also found that Clive Matthew Austin, a solicitor for 20 years, inadvertently paid a cheque for £1,115 issued by HMRC in a client matter into his personal bank account. The tribunal rejected that Austin acted dishonestly after accepting his explanation that he believed it was a tax rebate cheque intended for him personally.
Austin was reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority by his former firm, Essex-based Giles Wilson LLP, about his time recording on a particular client file from 2017.
It was agreed between the SRA and Austin that he recorded 529 hours and 24 minutes of time on the matter, when a reasonable and proportionate time was around 15 hours. In July 2017 alone, he recorded almost 89 hours on the matter when the firm concluded that no time could be charged by him. Austin accepted he recorded excess time and initially told the firm this was a result of issues with the IT system.
He later told the SDT he had been extremely busy and felt compromised by time recording targets and costs limits for types of files. He described his actions as ‘stupid’ and submitted that he ‘naively’ thought his actions would help internal performance calculations.
The tribunal found that Austin wanted to ‘avoid adverse scrutiny’ of his work and said there was a degree of concealment involved in the ‘dumping’ of time on the client file to give the impression he was meeting his targets.
On the cashing of the cheque, which happened after Austin moved to another firm, the tribunal said this was a mistake caused by ‘insufficient investigation rather than any positive motivation’. Austin had been due for a personal tax rebate for a similar amount to the rebate in the client matter and the cheque had no cover note to explain what it was for.
On the issue of costs, the tribunal reduced the amount payable from the £35,000 claimed by the SRA to £20,000. The tribunal noted there was no supporting material to back up the 74 hours of investigation and report preparation claimed for. The 17.5 hours for ‘directions, answer and case management’ was almost halved after the tribunal found there had been duplication between the solicitors involved.