A solicitor who claimed her naivety and lack of business experience was exploited by an unqualified business partner has been suspended for two years.
Jayne Okacha set up Archgate Solicitors in December 2011 as a sole practitioner in conjunction with an unregistered person. The firm was closed last year after the Solicitors Regulation Authority found it had breached rules relating to its finances.
The SRA investigated Archgate after Okacha failed to nominate compliance officers for legal practice, and finance and administration. During its investigation the SRA found that she had failed to keep accounting records and permitted a shortfall of money in the client account.
The investigator was told there was a shortfall of over £6,000.
At a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal hearing, Okacha admitted that she had failed to take any proper part in managing the firm, which she had set up after being made redundant.
She formed the firm with an unauthorised person, identified in the tribunal judgment as Mr BS, who Okacha believed would be a qualified lawyer by the time the firm was set up. This meant the practice constituted an unauthorised alternative business structure.
Okacha said that Mr BS, who was an equity partner at the firm, told her that there just one small thing he had to do before being admitted as a solicitor.
Her solicitors said she had been the subject of ‘significant deception’ by Mr BS who had wanted ‘someone to “front” a legal practice’, and took advantage of her naivety and lack of business experience.
Okacha said the business was set up with the ‘best possible intentions’, but according to her solicitors a ‘series of lies, deceit, fraud and bullying’, meant she had no effective governance and control over it. Okacha said in her witness statement that when she tried to gain more control over the firm she felt threatened by Mr BS and his family.
She also said that a serious illness in the family, the death of her mother and her own serious illness had left her in an ‘emotional fog’ at the time.
The tribunal found that although Okacha had been well-meaning and competent in her field of community care work, she had ‘totally abdicated her professional responsibilities and duties’.
It said that she was unaware of almost all her regulatory duties and duties with regard to accounts, and had left the firm in an ‘inherently risky situation’, by failing to run her business effectively.
It said it was concerned that she did not have keys to the office, did not have access to the firm’s computer systems and was unaware whether or not she had an email address at the firm.
The tribunal also noted that she had received a significant sum of money during the time she headed the firm, despite the fact she undertook no casework and had no real role in running it.
It said: ‘As the sole principal, she had significant responsibilities which she failed to fulfil to any meaningful degree. The respondent had failed to stand up to Mr BS. She did not understand what she was doing, but she was content to accept some financial rewards.’
It ruled that her conduct had fallen ‘far short of expected standards’ and suspended her for two years. The tribunal also determined that after her suspension she should not be a principal in a law firm, should not hold client money and must inform any prospective employers of the conditions and the reason for them.
Okacha was ordered to pay costs at an agreed sum of £25,000.