The whole point of solicitors’ regulation is to protect the consumer, many of whom are vulnerable by reason of age, infirmity, learning difficulties or abusive relationships. This is why solicitors have a raft of obligations to protect clients and the integrity of the profession. So you would think a solicitor of more than three decades would have little difficulty recognising clear signs that a client is vulnerable; and take necessary measures to protect him.
Unfortunately, significant professional failures enabled a client (A) with autism, limited intellectual skills, a low level of intelligence and a mental age of around 12 to be openly exploited.
Anthony Gale, while working for Harrogate firm Ison Harrison, acted for both A and the purchaser’s company in a property transaction. The buyer was a very long-standing client of Gale. He was initially instructed by both parties, but Gale then decided only to act for A – but did not once see him on his own. Further red flags in this transaction included:
- The consideration was repayment of the purported £119,260 mortgage
- There was no mortgage on the property
- The sum was not to be paid into the client account
- No payment was made to A
- No valuation of the property was undertaken
- The buyer apparently prepared the transfer himself
Following completion, A’s social worker became aware of the property transfer and alerted the police. Gale was interviewed but faced no further action; the buyer (an accountant) was eventually convicted of fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 5.5 years in imprison.
Gale told police he’d had no concerns about A’s vulnerability, but an expert report said his difficulties would have been apparent when Gale dealt with the matter. Gale did acknowledge that the circumstances were “mildly strange”.
The SDT found that A was clearly subject to undue influence and/or financial abuse, yet Gale had failed to advise A and take steps to protect his interests – including any right to continue to live at the property as A had no alternative home to move to. Nor had Gale advised him of the risks of transferring his property.
The SDT noted Gale’s “demonstrable propensity to ignore red flags in conveyancing transactions, and his inherent inability to identify and heed warning signs of fraud or exploitation”. Gale admitted misconduct and recklessness.
The tribunal ruled that given his experience, Gale was highly culpable and had committed a material breach of his obligations to protect the public and the reputation of the profession. His actions had also had a profound impact on A.
This was not an isolated incident – in 2018 Gale was fined £10,000 for breaches in earlier conveyancing matters. Even so, those sanctions had not rectified Gale’s “ineptitude”. He was suspended for a year and ordered to pay £12,000 in costs.
This is undoubtedly a case of excessive misconduct. Gale did not appear to be wholly incompetent in the common sense of the word – the SDT found Gale’s actions to be deliberate, calculated and repeated.
Solicitors ought to take this case as an important reminder of how vital it is to recognise and act appropriate on red flags and potential suspicious activity, instead of ignoring them for the sake of expediency.
Practitioners can read the SDT ruling here