A Western Australian settlement agent has been fined just $8,000 by the Midland Magistrates Court for taking almost $90,000 from her company's trust account fund.
Natalie Jane Briggs, who traded as Frontline Settlements, pleaded guilty last Thursday to 13 charges related to failures to comply with the Settlement Agents Act and the agency’s inability to finalise the financial settlements of four property transactions due to the misuse of clients’ trust money.
An investigation by Consumer Protection was launched after Ms Briggs surrendered her licence and triennial certificate in September 2010, but she refused to cooperate with a mandatory termination audit of the agency’s trust account.
The audit was not completed until August 2011 and required a search warrant to be executed on the agent’s premises to obtain accounting records.
The auditor found that Ms Briggs had failed to keep full and accurate accounts, with many crucial accounts missing. It also found that the agency’s trust account only had a balance of $80.69 and was therefore unable to settle a total of $89,357.78 in financial commitments.
Magistrate Gregory Andrew Benn said the series of offences represented a serious decline in the performance of the settlement agent, despite being well aware of her obligations and responsibilities.
He also said the offences cast the profession in a poor light, resulting in community distrust.
"The community had a legitimate expectation that matters such as this would receive a serious penalty," Mr Benn said.
Commissioner for Consumer Protection Anne Driscoll said settlement agents were entrusted with the property handling of funds related to property transactions.
“To betray this trust and misuse these funds is a very serious offence, so it’s imperative that agents comply completely with the strict rules that apply to these transactions, which often involve large amounts of other people’s money,” Ms Driscoll said.
“The Fidelity Guarantee Account forms an important basis to protect those involved in real estate transactions from licensed agents who may misappropriate trust funds. It is vital in providing compensation for those who have lost money due to criminal or fraudulent activities and serves to underpin confidence in the property industry in WA.”
Real Estate Business was unable to contact Ms Briggs for comment.