The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has questioned why a retired sole practitioner was hauled before a hearing after almost 50 years of previously exemplary service.
Reginald Hemmings, 79, was alleged to have notified the Solicitors Regulation Authority three weeks late that his firm had entered the extended indemnity period after failing to secure insurance by 1 October 2013.
Hemmings, who practised in Taunton, Somerset, also appeared to take on two new instructions after 31 October, not permitted by SRA rules. He also held £636 received from a client in the office bank account until the problem was picked up and rectified five months later.
The SRA also alleged that Hemmings had written to his indemnity insurers in February 2014 saying he had accepted no new instructions.
However he told the tribunal that he had written to a client over a ‘minor matter’ where property had been transferred between spouses, and it had not occurred to him this was a new instruction.
The SDT said this allegation amounted to a ‘genuine error’ in relation to one extremely minor new instruction, and the solicitor had tried to give the best service to his clients.
It was alleged that Hemmings had breached the accounts rules by failing to make transfers from office to client accounts of £25, £100 and £636. Hemmings admitted these breaches.
The SDT heard that Hemmings was in the process of closing his practice and had informed the SRA it was entering the closing down period.
He described the experience of appearing before the tribunal as ‘extremely distressing’ and submitted that he had always acted with integrity, honesty and diligence.
The SRA intervened into the firm in April 2014 after receiving information he was continuing to act for clients after the end of the closure period, although Hemmings maintained he was days away from completing an orderly wind-down when the intervention happened.
The tribunal said that, bearing in mind the powers available to the SRA, there were ‘serious doubts’ about the referral to the SDT.
‘Although it was important that rules were to be observed, equally there was also a need to act proportionally when considering enforcement action,’ said the tribunal.
‘In his evidence, [Hemmings] came across as a man of integrity who had his clients’ best interests at heart. Further, he had provided almost 50 years of exemplary service to the profession.’ Overall the SDT chose to reprimand Hemmings and nothing more.
The SDT found an allegation that Hemmings provided banking facilities to a client through his firm’s client account proved.
The solicitor explained this related to a complicated family matter and that he did not consider it to be a banking facility.
This was found to be the most serious allegation found proved, but the tribunal accepted Hemmings made a ‘genuine mistake’.
The SRA said Hemmings made more than 200 payments from his client account where there was no underlying legal transaction, with monies amounting to nearly £80,000.
The regulator applied for £6,472 in costs, but the tribunal reduced this to £2,000 due to Hemmings having limited means and no assets or savings.
Gordon Ramsay, the SRA's director of legal and enforcement, said: ‘In our view, this was an issue that the tribunal should consider, including the mitigation Mr Hemmings put forward in his evidence. It was prosecuted proportionately by our in-house team.’