Former solicitor Nigel Harvie has been ordered to pay £305,000 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ("SDT") – the biggest fine (by a long way) ever imposed by the tribunal.
The previous highest fine imposed was £50,000 on a firm and £40,000 on an individual. According to data published by the SRA, the median average fine since the beginning of 2014 is £5,000, excluding the fine imposed on Mr Harvie.
Mr Harvie was also ordered to pay the SRA's costs of £37,016.40 at the hearing on 24-26 February 2015.
The penalty stems from a financial arrangement between Mr Harvie and a client which began in 2005. She transferred ownership of her house to him in exchange for his paying for her care and living costs. The house was valued at £300,000 in 2005, and according to the Land Registry was worth £800,000 by 2012.
The former client died in 2010, and the matter came to light as a result of complaints by neighbours to the SRA that the deceased's wishes were not being carried out. Mr Harvie was an executor of her will, which stated that her estate be used to set up a trust fund for former students.
Mr Harvie admitted failing to advise the client to take independent legal advice before entering into the financial arrangement with her which risked a conflict of interest, and acting in a way that was contrary to his position as a solicitor.
Mr Harvie claimed that the client was happy with the arrangement, and that his co-executor was aware of his actions at all times. He denied using his position as a solicitor to take unfair advantage of the client, but despite that the SDT upheld that allegation.
Although the judgment is not yet available, according to the SRA, the tribunal said that "the public would be appalled by the behaviour of Mr Harvie in taking unfair advantage of his former client and he has done significant harm to the reputation of the profession."
David Middleton, Executive Director for Legal and Enforcement, said: "The SRA is committed to working with solicitors and firms to raise standards and uphold core professional principles. Solicitors occupy unique positions of trust often on behalf of vulnerable members of the public.
Mr Harvie abused that trust, and the record level of the fine clearly reflects the seriousness of this betrayal. Although Mr Harvie stated that his former client was happy with the arrangement put in place, he should have ensured that she seek independent advice at the outset because he stood to gain financially and therefore there was a clear conflict of interest."
Mr Harvie has 21 days to appeal and 12 months to pay the fine.
This extreme case highlights the need to be aware of potential or actual conflicts of interest and have appropriate conflict-checking systems in place, or risk the potentially disastrous consequences.
Since the implementation of outcomes-focussed regulation, the Code of Conduct rules can seem unclear or open to interpretation, so it is prudent to seek guidance or advice if unsure (though there is no suggestion in this case that Mr Harvie's actions were based on some unclarity in the Code of Conduct...).