Solicitor struck off for dishonesty
By Nicola Laver
A sole practitioner has been struck off for dishonesty after using client money to pay off his firm’s debts
Chidi Umezurike was admitted in 2005 and was the sole principal of CK Law Limited.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) was tipped off by another firm, which had become concerned that his firm was in financial difficulties. An SRA investigation ensued.
During interviews with officers from the SRA’s forensics investigation unit in April 2019, Umezurike falsely indicated that there no judgment debts against him or the firm; nor had he received any financial notices in relation to firm debts.
In fact, there were at least three county court judgments, as well as other proceedings opened during the previous 12 months.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) ruled that in giving the SRA false or misleading answers, Umezurike had failed to act with integrity.
The SDT also heard that around four months after that interview, there was a cash shortage of more than £20,000 on the firm’s client account.
This had arisen because client money had been paid to cover professional disbursements, but those had remained unpaid and the money had not been transferred to the client account.
Various client-to-office account transfers had also been made which were unjustified and/or improper.
Umezurike also failed to properly comply with a statutory production notice served by the SRA. The responses he did give were, the SRA said, “at best manifestly incompetent”.
The SDT said members of the public expected solicitors to cooperate with the SRA and to comply fully with their statutory obligations in a timely manner.
It found that Umezurike had failed to comply with those obligations.
The SDT also heard that retrospective changes were made to ledger entries and/or cashbooks which were subsequently passed to the SRA.
It found that those changes had been made with the purpose of disguising and justifying the improper transfers, something a solicitor acting with integrity would not have done.
Such conduct was dishonest
Despite Umerzurike arguing that the books were written up and reconciled in a timely way, his former bookkeeper said she had not reconciled them since the end of March 2019.
The SDT made clear that members of the public did not expect a solicitor to retain client monies in an overdrawn office account in contravention of the accounts rules.
He had knowingly and consciously used monies that he knew he was not entitled to.
Umezurike’s conduct was found to have failed to maintain the trust the public placed in him and in the provision of legal services in breach of SRA principles.
The SDT ruled that his dereliction of duty was so serious that he was in material breach of his regulatory obligations.
“Ordinary and decent people would consider that it was dishonest to knowingly use monies provided to pay for disbursements to reduce the firm’s indebtedness,” said the SDT.
He was struck off and ordered to pay costs of nearly £40,000.