Scots lawyer struck off following embezzlement conviction

Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal
Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal

Scots lawyer convicted of embezzling more than £20,000 of clients’ money has been struck off the solicitors’ roll by the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT).

Paul O’Donnell, of Glasgow, pleaded guilty at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in April 2016 to embezzling £21,485 of clients’ money between November 2012 and September 2014 while employed by Edinburgh firm Thorley Stephenson.

He was given a six-month restriction of liberty order rather than a prison sentence after selling his house in order to repay the money.

Under section 53(1)(b) of the Solicitors’ (Scotland) Act 1980 the tribunal can exercise its power to strike off whenever a solicitor has been convicted of an act involving dishonesty.

Following his conviction the Law Society of Scotland’s Professional Conduct Sub-committee considered the complaint and determined that O’Donnell’s conduct and conviction amounted to a “serious and reprehensible departure from the standard of conduct to be expected of a competent and reputable solicitor”, and that the complaint should be referred to the SSDT.

In its decision the tribunal said that a conviction for embezzlement which disclosed “a course of dishonest conduct” involving clients was “incompatible” with being a solicitor.

Tribunal Vice Chairman Colin Bell said: “Members of the public must have confidence that solicitors were trustworthy and honest, and that there integrity is beyond question. [A] solicitor who has been guilty of dishonesty with clients’ money forfeits the respect and trust of the public and his colleagues and disgraces his profession.

“Membership of the profession is a privilege. Solicitors undertake a duty throughout their professional lives to conduct their clients’ affairs to their utmost ability and with complete honesty and integrity. Clients and colleagues should be able to expect these qualities of every solicitor as a matter of course.”

The tribunal observed that if the public is to give the profession its trust and respect, it must be assured that when solicitors fail in these duties they will be suitably dealt with by the profession’s disciplinary system, adding that proven acts of dishonesty will “almost invariably” lead to strike off.

The tribunal’s decision should be one that both “vindicates the reputation of the profession and protects the public against the risk of repetition”.

O’Donnell, who did not engage with the tribunal proceedings, failed to show any remorse or any insight into his conduct.

Mr Bell added: “The conduct leading to his conviction was a danger to the public and was likely to seriously damage the reputation of the legal profession.

“The conviction demonstrated that the respondent was not a fit and proper person to be a solicitor. Therefore, the only appropriate course was to strike the respondent’s name from the roll of solicitors.”

In a second complaint made by the respondent’s former employers, on the basis of the same conduct which gave rise to the criminal conviction, O’Donnell was found to found guilty of “professional misconduct” for retaining cash paid in advance of fees and outlays amounting to nearly £28,000 and not disclosing it to the firm.

In its decision the tribunal censured him, having regard to the limits on its powers where a solicitor has already been struck off.

In a third decision, O’Donnell was fined £2,500 over his botched handling of a case and for failing to communicate effectively with the client concerned and failing to cooperate with the Law Society in its investigation of the complaint.

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021

Other judgments by Vice Chairman Colin Bell