Scots lawyer jailed for embezzling clients’ cash struck-off solicitors’ roll
A Scots lawyer who was jailed for embezzling thousands of pounds of clients’ money has been struck of the solicitors’ roll for professional misconduct.
Steven Crommie, who was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment earlier this year after pleading guilty to the offence, “deliberately and repeatedly” retained cash payments from clients of his firm Bell Park Kerridge, the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) found.
The SSDT said that the total amount “misappropriated” was £16,000, adding that it had “no hesitation” in finding that the respondent’s conduct was “sufficiently serious and reprehensible” to amount to professional misconduct.
Mr Crommie, 38, who was enrolled as a solicitor in 2004 and joined BPK in August 2012 as the sole Scottish member and director of the firm, stole the money to pay off gambling debts.
The tribunal heard that the clients’ engagement letter provided by BPK stated that the firm accepted cash payments up to a limit of £1,500.
If cash was tendered by a client, the firm developed a practice whereby they maintained a cash receipt book with a carbon copy, which in accordance with the practice, should be removed and placed on the file and accounting slips completed.
However, in about March 2014 another director of the firm discovered that the respondent, who was the cashroom manager for the Scottish practice, was asking clients to make cash payments in respect of fees.
Having been alerted to this concern, the director made enquiries of certain clients, in particular a client who had attended at the Dumfries office to make a payment of £500, who confirmed to the director that the respondent “wanted cash because it was more convenient, cleared faster than cheques etc”.
The director then raised the matter with Mr Crommie, who admitted that he had been accepting cash payments but had not placed it through the firm’s books.
The respondent, who produced a list of clients from whom he had taken cash, advised the director that it was his intention to repay the money, but he had gambling debts and was unable to pay it back immediately.
The company identified a number of transactions where cash was paid by clients of the firm to the respondent and the money was retained by him for his own personal use instead of being deposited in the client account.
The tribunal was told that the respondent had stolen from his employers and his actions had also resulted in the Inland Revenue being defrauded.
He was prosecuted for these offences on indictment and had received a prison sentence of 12 months on 17 March 2015.
Mr Crommie told the tribunal that he had come to “apologise” for what had happened.
He said he had “got himself into a mess and there was no way out”.
He explained that when he went to BPK it had been their policy to take money up front for transactions, but this had never happened at his previous firm.
To start with he did not ask the clients for cash, but once he started he could not get out of it.
He said he knew that this was not a defence but it was an “explanation”.
When his employers found out he told them immediately and gave full information about all the clients concerned.
He explained that he had been trying to win the money back and had not realised how much money was involved.
He also explained that family problems led to further financial difficulties and the debts were mounting up.
He accepted that clients would have suffered due to the police investigation and that BPK suffered financially and in terms of their reputation.
He submitted that this was not the sort of person he was, adding that he had “paid the price” for what had happened.
However, the tribunal considered that in a case such as this, involving dishonesty and breach of client’s trust, there was “no alternative” but to strike the respondent’s name from the roll of solicitors in Scotland.
In a written decision, Alistair Cockburn, chairman of the tribunal, said: “It is essential that solicitors are honest and trustworthy at all times. It is extremely detrimental to the reputation of the profession if solicitors act in the way that the respondent did in this case.
“The client account must be kept sacrosanct at all times. Whatever pressure a solicitor is facing there is no excuse for taking client’s money to which a solicitor is not entitled. There is no place in the profession for a solicitor who has stolen from his clients.”
The tribunal did however note that the respondent did have insight into what happened and found him to be “genuinely contrite”. It also acknowledged that he cooperated by entering into a joint minute and seemed to have “accepted his guilt” from a very early stage in the proceedings.