Missing millions and the vanishing lawyer
Deidre Newell-Austin had the legal world at her feet. Not yet 40, she ran her own central London law firm and even had a stake in a construction company.
Posing for photographs on the London Eye, Miss Newell-Austin was every inch the glamorous lawyer in the making.
But it has all come crashing down. Her firm, Austin Law, is now at the centre of an official investigation into millions of pounds missing from clients’ accounts. The alleged fraud is one of the largest ever investigated by the solicitors’ watchdog. Police are also involved.
It centres on the disappearance of £3.6 million from at least 15 alleged victims, and has prompted a series of legal actions. Most of the cash remains missing.
One couple told The Telegraph how they paid £410,000 into the firm’s accounts to fund a house purchase only to see it later disappear, with a large part allegedly diverted to a commodities investment company. The couple are now in a legal limbo and face seeing their home swiftly repossessed.
Miss Newell-Austin, 39 and a mother of one, is currently believed to be abroad. She vehemently denies any wrongdoing but her assets have been frozen and her firm shut down. She and two solicitors she employed are also under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Whatever the truth of the allegations, it represents a remarkable fall from grace for Miss Newell-Austin. A graduate of London Metropolitan University, she qualified as a solicitor in 2006, and she had helped to set up Austin Law within three years.
She appeared to be well down the road towards a successful career. Postings on her Facebook site suggest she was enjoying life, attending reggae concerts and evenings out on the London Eye. That was until last summer, when the alarm was raised over fears that money had gone missing.
But in July, Austin Law, which had premises on the busy Edgware Road in London, was raided by authority investigators. They found the offices had been cleared out and just 11 case files remained.
The whereabouts of the rest of the documents remains a mystery, making it difficult for investigators to piece together what happened to the millions of pounds that should have been in the client account. Most of the money was earmarked for property transactions and was supposed to be held only on account by Austin Law, which had a sizeable conveyancing practice.
In a statement on its website, the watchdog said it shut down Austin Law because it “was satisfied that grounds for intervention existed … namely that there was reason to suspect dishonesty on the part of Ms Newell-Austin”.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has received applications for £3.6 million from alleged victims.
Zangir and Nazmin Mehrban are apparently victims. Last June, they thought they had bought their dream home. Lawyers acting for them sent £410,000 by bank transfer to Austin Law, which was handling the sale. The money should have paid off the vendor’s £270,000 mortgage as well as £110,000 of debts borrowed against the house. The rest should have gone to the vendor and on legal fees.
Instead, according to a bank statement, just over a quarter of a million pounds was diverted out of Austin Law’s client account to a Manchester-based commodities trading company. What happened to the rest is unknown.
Unaware of a problem, the Mehrbans moved into their five-bedroom home in east London last summer. In August, they received notification that bailiffs were threatening to repossess their house because the previous mortgage had not been paid off. The mortgage firm wanted its money back.
The couple are prevented from registering their ownership at the Land Registry, leaving them in a legal limbo. They still have to pay monthly repayments on their own £100,000 loan on the house.
Other families are also likely to be stuck in a similar legal no man’s land.
“We are living in fear,” said Mrs Mehrban, 41, a mother of three, who has collapsed twice and been taken to hospital suffering from stress. “We just feel anxious the whole time. I don’t sleep at night. We are just trying to keep the wolves from the door.
“We have a mortgage and we are making repayments but we don’t even own the property.”
Lawyers for the Mehrbans have frozen Miss Newell-Austin’s assets, and brought High Court cases against the firm’s two other solicitors.
Nitin Khandia, a partner at BTMK law firm, representing the Mehrbans, said: “This has been a nightmare for our clients. We stopped the bailiffs repossessing their house. We know some of the money went to a Manchester metal trading firm, but we have not seen any other statements showing where the money has gone.”
Miss Newell-Austin protests her innocence. In legal papers in a High Court action brought by the Mehrbans, she denied any involvement in their case, saying that the transaction was handled by another solicitor at her firm.
She claimed that on the day that more than £250,000 was transferred to the company in Manchester her law firm began operating with two partners. She said that six days later, she resigned from the partnership and went abroad. It is thought she was visiting her sick mother in the Caribbean.
The authority disputes this and insists that she remained sole practitioner with responsibility for the firm. Of the two lawyers she employed, one claims he qualified as a lawyer in Pakistan in 2012 and had no experience of English conveyancing law, while the other was a part-time solicitor and mother of three.
Miss Newell-Austin’s own lawyers said last week they could not comment unless authorised to do so by their client. Victor Aigbogun, her lawyer, said he had emailed her earlier in the week and she had not responded. There was no response at her home last week.
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