The Solicitors Regulation Authority has received a £38,000 costs bill after an adjudication panel’s decision to rebuke a head of legal practice was judged to be inadequate.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled that the finding against Seamus Andrew was not explained and represented a ‘serious procedural irregularity’.

The SRA adjudicator’s decision was overturned and the appeal allowed, with the tribunal ordering the regulator to pay Andrew’s costs.

Andrew had been head of legal practice and head of finance and administration with international firm Ontier LLP until he retired in December 2020.

He had undertaken the bookkeeping for the firm’s office account until 2016 after which he engaged an external firm to do the job. After he had left, the SRA investigated the firm and served a notice on Andrew alleging breaches of the accounts rules, recommending he be rebuked. The alleged breaches related to the period when the external firm was engaged on bookkeeping.

Andrew disputed being culpable for the alleged breaches and submitted that a rebuke was disproportionate.

An adjudicator subsequently found that Andrew had caused three different shortages on the client account of between £93,600 and £10,000. He applied for a review of the decision and attached a chartered accountant’s report concluding there had been no breach of the accounts rules.

Nevertheless, an SRA adjudication panel upheld the adjudicator’s decision, prompting Andrew to appeal to the SDT.

One working day before the tribunal hearing, the SRA applied for leave to submit a witness statement out of time. The SDT refused this, pointing out that the appeal was lodged five months previously and saying it would be unfair to allow at such a late stage.

The SRA also accepted that the adjudicator and adjudication panel erred in finding the £93,600 shortage.

In respect of the other two shortages identified, Andrew’s representatives argued he should not be culpable for breaches or mistakes caused by someone else. It was submitted that the SRA had failed to obtain the relevant bank statements to even verify if there was a shortage and this element of the allegations had not been put to Andrew during interview. The SRA submitted that Andrew had ‘some personal involvement’ in the accounts rule breaches.

The tribunal said the adjudication panel had not explained why Andrew was not entitled to rely on professional bookkeepers and not entitled to blame them when they made a mistake. The panel had described Andrew’s explanation as ‘unattractive’ but did not explain why. Effectively, Andrew was deemed vicariously liable for all actions undertaken by professionals whom he had engaged to do this work, but again the panel had not explained why.


This article is now closed for comment.