A firm costing the compensation fund almost £3 million through their handling of conveyancing transactions have had three of their solicitors struck off.
Following a three-day hearing at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in September, Najma Assroundi and Deidre Newell-Austin were both banned. Originally from Pakistan, Rashad Ahsan was removed from the register of foreign owners. All practising at Austins Law in London, the trio were all found to have either aided or failed to have prevented ‘infiltration’ of the firm by specific individuals and thus allowing fraud to occur.
Founder of the firm in 2011 and solicitor of 10 years, Newell-Austin enlisted Ahsan and Assroundi in 2013, with a view to leaving the company. The pair became partners of the firm in 2013, but the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) intervened only a month later after a complaint was lodged by law firm G & Co.
G & Co had written to Austins Law, stating that following completion of a £435,000 property transaction, its client had naturally attempted to enter the purchased property. Inside however, they found occupants who were shocked to discover the house had been sold. G & Co suggested the transaction was fraudulent in nature. In order to portray legitimacy during early SRA interviews, ‘Zak’ – a bookkeeper posing as Ahsan – confirmed he had checked the original documentation and met the client of the £435,000 transaction.
Newell-Austin had failed to prevent improper withdrawals from the client account, as well as unsuccessfully exercising proper supervision over staff members – Zak in particular – the tribunal heard. During the application to be recognised as an authorised partnership, it was found Newell-Austin has also misled the SRA. Most notably, she had failed to highlight the two county court judgments against Assroundi, as well as Ahsan having been arrested in relation with one of the conveyancing transactions. He was, however, not charged.
By permitting Zak to control the firm and have access to client funds, Ahsan was found to have compromised his independence. Assroundi had also failed to report this happening to the SRA.
Newell-Austin had assured SRA officers that Austins Law’s two new partners were competent conveyancers, following the start of an investigation into the firm. Ahsan and Assroundi however, denied possessing any experience of such work whatsoever.
They both stated they lacked any knowledge of how to process conveyancing files and were completely unaware that the transactions were suspicious.
A total sum of £2.9 million had been paid to Austins Law clients from the compensation fund from February of last year, with some claims still outstanding.
Newell-Austin was the only one with representation at the hearing and submitted her naivety in recruiting fraudulent individuals. She did however highlight that her dishonesty was a result of the desperate nature of the situation she was in and that she was under both personal and financial stress. She also mentioned she had no reason to distrust the new recruits’ motives and that references had been provided.
Any sanction aside from striking off was rejected by the tribunal.
All three had caused ‘immense harm and damage to the reputation of the profession’ the tribunal concluded, and nothing they were going through could justify treating the case as exceptional.
The trio were also ordered to pay £75,000 in joint costs in addition to being struck off, with Newell-Austin having to pay an extra £10,000.