Ignorance of professional rules such as the accounts rules does not absolve a solicitor of responsibility for complying with the rules, the Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal has said in its full decision in the case against former MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and her partner Alan Mickel.
In January this year the tribunal censured both solicitors, former partners in the firm of Hamilton Burns, and fined them £3,000 each after finding three counts of professional misconduct established, singly and when taken as a whole. The tribunal's full decision has now been released.
The charges concerned a trust, the Jill Mickel Trust, set up in 2012. Jill Mickel was Mr Mickel's sister. The tribunal found the trust funds to have been client funds, as they were paid into the firm's client account, and that the trust was a client of the firm. Both solicitors had failed to keep properly written up such accounting records as were necessary to show all the practice unit’s dealings with clients’ money, in breach of rule B6.7.1 of the Solicitors' Practice Rules; they had borrowed money from a client trust in breach of rule B6.20; and they also acted in a conflict of interest situation in breach of rule B1.7.1.
In its decision the tribunal said the respondents were experienced solicitors and partners and directors of the practice unit. They had both acted as cashroom manager at various times, and Ms Ahmed-Sheikh had been cashroom manager during the period covered in the averments of misconduct against her. They were both trustees of the client trust.
It held that competent and reputable solicitors would have made the necessary enquiries to satisfy themselves with regard to compliance. The respondents ought to have understood the relationship which existed between the trust and the practice unit. They had responsibilities to both and were uniquely placed to make that assessment. While it accepted that neither respondent was experienced in the area of trust law, they were partners and directors of the practice unit and therefore ought to have known the accounts rules and been able to apply them to these circumstances. Solicitors are obliged to comply with the rules and ignorance of the rules was insufficient to absolve solicitors of their responsibilities. Adherence to the rules was essential to maintain public trust in the profession.
While there was no dishonesty on the part of either solicitor, it was essential that solicitors were in a position to account to every client at all times and this required full and accurate records. The failures in ths case were serious given the length of time over which the conduct occurred (more than three years), and the conflict of interest situation which involved the solicitors' personal and business interests.