Compliance officer 'fundamentally misunderstood' his obligations
Solicitors tribunal increases fine on COFA for failing to report account rules breaches to the regulator
A compliance officer who ‘fundamentally misunderstood his obligations’ was fined £7,500 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and banned from being a COLP or COFA, after being in post for just one year.
Steven David Hulme was employed as assistant solicitor with Lancashire practice Orbis Solicitors, which was closed down by the Solicitors Regulation Authority on 7 April 2016 following suspicion that the firm’s founder and director, solicitor Anne Bradley, had acted dishonestly.
Hulme qualified in 2003 and started worked at Orbis in April 2006, becoming the firm’s compliance officer for finance and administration on 2 January 2013.
In February 2014, a forensic investigation by the SRA uncovered a £84,666.63 cash shortage in the firm’s client account. The sum was made up of unpaid professional disbursements received into the firm’s office account between 8 August 2011 and 30 January 2014, which should have been paid out within two days of receipt.
In his defence, Hulme argued that he was aware of the breaches. They had been discussed in board meetings and he had recorded them in the firm’s Accounts Rules Breach Record, which he maintained.
The 41-year-old solicitor agreed these breaches should have been reported to the SRA but said he had reported them to Anne Bradley in her capacity as the firm’s compliance officer for legal practice, who, he said, assured him that she reported them to the SRA.
Hulme and the SRA agreed that a £5,000 would be an appropriate sanction.
The tribunal, however, considered the seriousness of the misconduct should attract a higher fine of £7,500 and that Hulme’s practising certificate should be subject to a condition that he may not be a compliance officer.
‘The tribunal considered that [Hulme]’s misconduct was serious. There was a substantial shortage that subsisted on the firm’s client account over an extended period of time. The respondent was aware of that amount, and indeed recorded the breach in the Accounts Rules Breach Record he maintained. He had agreed to act as the firm’s COFA, but had fundamentally misunderstood his obligations in that regard,’ the tribunal said in Solicitors Regulation Authority v Anne Teresa Bradley and Steven David Hulme.
Hulme also agreed to pay the SRA’s costs in the sum of £2,250.
Bradley was investigated separately and suspended from practice as a solicitor for five years on 16 November 2016, one week after the tribunal hearing in the Hulme case.
The Orbis Solicitors website, www.orbissolicitors.co.uk, now diverts to Orbis Paralegals, an unregulated firm specialising in will writing.
Hulme is now working as an employed solicitor at Cheshire-based claims company Stanton Fisher Ltd.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief of Solicitors Journal
UPDATE: This story was amended on Friday 13 January to clarify that, contrary to claims on the Orbis Paralegals website, Online Legal Services Limited does not own and is not related to Orbis Paralegals.