A solicitor who tried to keep her firm afloat with legal aid disbursement payments rather than passing them on experts and counsel has been struck off.
Samantha Anne Lee, admitted in 1995, was a director and owner of Lee Syms Limited. The firm derived from an existing practice, Swain & Co Solicitors LLP where Lee had also been a director. It went into administration in November 2020 when it was bought by Young & Co in a pre-pack sale.
In addition to her role as director, Lee was also the COLP and COFA.
In an agreed outcome the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that Lee caused ‘significant harm’ to the reputation of the profession and third-party suppliers. At the date of the firm’s administration, third party suppliers were owed more than £647,000.
Lee’s conduct, which continued over five years, was described as ‘reckless in the extreme’.
When the firm went into administration, it owed £1,149,432.02. The sum did not include £647,952.07 received from the Legal Aid Agency and not paid to third party suppliers including experts and counsel.
The SRA received complaints from three medical experts who had been instructed about the non-payment of their invoices for work done under the firm’s legal aid contract. The unpaid invoices of the experts between September 2018 and September 2020 totalled £279,092.70. Of that amount, £247,437,24 was owed to one expert.
Lee admitted the three allegations against her; that she failed to ensure that unpaid professional disbursements were paid, failed to remedy breaches of the SRA accounts rules 2011 and upon receiving a statutory monthly payment from the LAA on settled cases, failed to ensure necessary payments were made and instead allowed the money received to be used for the running of the firm.
The SDT said: ‘Ms Lee knew that there was a substantial amount of monies owed and knew that not paying those monies was in breach of the SAR. Ms Lee had used the monies for personal remuneration as well as to finance the firm. Accordingly, Ms Lee had improperly used client money for her own benefit as well as that of the firm. Despite knowing that such conduct was in breach of the SAR, Ms Lee took no action to remedy the breaches.’
Striking off Lee was the only ‘appropriate and proportionate sanction’.
Dishonesty was alleged as an aggravating feature, but the tribunal approved its withdrawal. Lee’s admissions and the proposed sanction meant it was ‘neither proportionate nor in the interests of justice for the allegations of dishonesty to be pursued’.
Lee was also ordered to pay costs of £6,582.88.