A solicitor and the firm where he is a partner have been ordered to pay more than £16,000 in fines and costs for refusing to give documents to The Pensions Regulator (TPR) which were required as part of a wider investigation.
The case involves the first criminal convictions secured by TPR.
Anthony Wilson, the managing partner at London-based Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP, failed to provide the required documents to TPR despite being pursued for them for almost nine months.
The documents related to a property linked to an individual who was involved in a TPR pension scam investigation. Neither Mr Wilson nor Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP was connected with the investigation and there was no suggestion that their staff had done anything wrong in their dealings with the property.
TPR issued a notice to Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP requiring that information be provided to its staff. However, the firm claimed that it was having trouble obtaining the documents as they were stored at a separate site. Shortly afterwards, Mr Wilson confirmed that he had located the documents, and would provide them to TPR, but did not do so.
Despite TPR staff making numerous requests for the information, it was only when they entered the offices of Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP in Ives Street, Knightsbridge, with a search warrant in March 2016 that the documents were secured.
TPR decided that the failure to hand over the documents was so serious that it merited the criminal prosecution of both Mr Wilson and his company – the first time TPR has taken such action.
At Brighton Magistrates’ Court yesterday (Tuesday 4 April) both Mr Wilson and Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP pleaded guilty to refusing to provide documents required under section 72 of the Pensions Act 2004 without a reasonable excuse, which is an offence under section 77 of the Act.
Sentencing them, District Judge Christopher James said that information notices were an important enforcement tool for TPR that had been used appropriately in the case.
He commented upon the lack of corporate governance at Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP and said there were insufficient “checks and balances” operated between the partners.
The judge ordered Mr Wilson to pay a £4,000 fine, £7,500 costs and a £120 victim surcharge. He ordered Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP to pay a £2,700 fine, £2,500 costs and a £120 victim surcharge.
Nicola Parish, TPR’s Executive Director of Frontline Regulation, said: “Our staff received a series of woeful excuses rather than the information they had requested. This was a case of the company refusing to comply with the law.
“Legal action could have been avoided if Mr Wilson or someone else at the firm had simply handed over the documents, as they should have done, because the information had already been retrieved from storage.
“As the court recognised, information notices are a key enforcement tool for TPR. We will not hesitate to prosecute those who prevent us gathering the vital data we need for our investigations. Refusing to comply with a legal request from The Pensions Regulator will not be tolerated.”
- TPR has the power under section 72 of the Pensions Act 2004 to require pension schemes, employers and third parties to provide us with information and documents relevant to our statutory functions.
- Failure to provide such information is a criminal offence which can result in an unlimited fine. Additionally, those involved can suffer serious reputational damage from being successfully prosecuted for non-compliance with the law. Businesses could also face further action from their professional body.
- Timeline of events
- 26 June 2015 – Information notice issued to Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP by TPR.
- 30 June 2015 – Deadline for responding to the information notice passes.
- 7 July 2015 – Company contacts TPR to say it has been unable to recover documents from storage.
- 14 August 2015 – Company contacts TPR to say documents have been recovered and are being copied.
- 12 November 2015 – Company asks for seven more days to produce the documents.
- 17 March 2016 – Search warrant executed and documents retrieved.
- 15 August 2016 – TPR applies for court summonses for both defendants.
- 4 April 2017 – Anthony Wilson and Ashley Wilson Solicitors LLP appear at Brighton Magistrates’ Court and admit neglecting and/or refusing to provide documents required under section 72 of the Pensions Act 2004 without a reasonable excuse.
- TPR is the regulator of work-based pension schemes in the UK. Our statutory objectives are: to protect members’ benefits; to reduce the risk of calls on the Pension Protection Fund (PPF); to promote, and to improve understanding of, the good administration of work-based pension schemes; to maximise employer compliance with automatic enrolment duties; and to minimise any adverse impact on the sustainable growth of an employer (in relation to the exercise of the regulator’s functions under Part 3 of the Pensions Act 2004 only).
James GloverSenior Media Officer