An ‘overwhelmed’ solicitor who faked judgments to cover her mistakes – then used her firm’s money to pay out on those ‘judgments’ – has been struck off the roll.
Paula Harris was convicted last August of three counts of fraud by abuse of position and one count of making or supplying articles for use in fraud. She was given an eight-month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to undertake 100 hours of unpaid work.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard Harris, who worked her way up from paralegal to non-member solicitor at Newcastle firm David Gray Solicitors, had failed to progress matters on her file and sought to repair the problems by fraudulently creating documents.
Matters came to light in 2017 when the firm undertook a review of files following a complaint about delays from a client: 12 files were stated to have been discovered containing 29 fraudulent documents, with eight clients having received payments to which they were not entitled.
Harris later admitted to pretending the claims had been decided, created the false judgments and paid out to clients from money held by the firm. The total loss to the firm was estimated at £15,000.
The tribunal heard that in sentencing, His Honour Judge Stubbs accepted Harris was ‘simply overwhelmed’ by her workload and by everything else going on in her life.
He added: ‘You thought that your only way out was instead of accepting that weakness and asking for help, to try and cover up your weakness by creating a series of documents - sophisticated documents - so that you could keep your head above water, keep clients quiet and maintain the fiction that you were coping in the responsible job that you were holding down.’
He opted against immediate custody on the basis of Harris’s personal circumstances and mitigation, and that money was not taken for any personal profit.
In her own mitigation to the tribunal, not endorsed by the SRA, Harris said it was her first appearance before the SDT and she had cooperated throughout. She claimed to have been under ‘significant stress’ both at work and in her personal life, and she pointed out the prosecutor in her trial noted she been given ’significantly more responsibility without, it would seem, further support’.
She agreed not to oppose the tribunal making an order to strike her off the roll. She also agreed with the SRA to pay £1,825 costs.
In a statement, David Gray Solicitors said: 'When problems came to light with Paula Harris’ work we began an investigation, leading to her immediate suspension in March 2017 and subsequent dismissal for gross misconduct in April 2017. We alerted the police and SRA to the issues we had discovered without delay and gave them the information that forms the basis of the SDT decision. The issues were confined to Ms Harris’ work and did not extend to any other member of staff.
'Throughout her time at the firm Ms Harris was always properly supervised and supported, details of which we provided to the Crown Prosecution Service and the SRA. We note the SRA have said they do not endorse the mitigation she advanced. We deeply regret Ms Harris’ actions whilst in our employment and have worked with those affected to redress the problems caused.'