The High Court has told a solicitor that a tribunal was right to bar him from acting as a compliance officer over the way he handled five conveyancing transactions.
Anthony Gale, former partner at Yorkshire firm Maurice Smiths Solicitors, had appealed the restrictions placed on his practising certificate following a hearing last year. Gale did not challenge the £10,000 fine.
But Mr Justice Pepperall said the tribunal had acted properly and recognised the potential harm that Gale’s conduct could have caused.
The tribunal found Gale had acted on the direction of a third party in property transactions without obtaining or confirming his client's instructions. His actions amounted to gross neglect and carelessness and a breach of his duties to protect his clients, to act in their best interest, to maintain his independence and to provide a proper standard or work. He also acted without conducting due diligence on his clients or the transaction funds.
The tribunal found Gale had been ‘sloppy, lazy and careless’ and, while rule breaches were not planned, they reflected a poor way of working. No harm was caused to clients but the tribunal observed this was ‘fortunate’ and the potential for harm had been high.
On appeal, Gale argued that restrictions preventing him from acting as a compliance officer, or from operating as a sole practitioner, were disproportionate and unnecessary. He argued that the alleged misconduct involved a family well known to him, where the risk of loss was minimal. He was no future risk to the profession and had a long and hitherto unblemished career.
The SRA argued for the restrictions to remain, saying Gale’s misconduct lasted for eight years, during which time he had been his firm’s compliance officer, and occurred despite his awareness of the regulations. The regulator said Gale should in future apply to the tribunal to remove restrictions.
The judge said the tribunal had undertaken a careful assessment of culpability, harm and the aggravating and mitigating features of the case. He did not accept the misconduct was merely a result of Gale’s failure of record keeping. Instead his failings were ‘more fundamental’ in acting for clients without seeking or obtaining direct instructions.
The tribunal’s assessment, it was judged, was ‘not plainly wrong’. Pepperall J added: ‘Indeed, I go further. On the facts of this case, I consider that the restrictions imposed were obviously justified and appropriate.’
The court also dismissed Gale’s appeal against the £28,000 costs order made against him, Pepperall J saying it should be ‘particularly slow’ to interfere in a tribunal’s decision on costs.