Ashley Wilson Solicitors and one of its partners have been fined £16,000 for refusing to give The Pensions Regulator (TPR) documents for an investigation, in the first use of one of its powers.
Anthony Wilson, a managing director at the firm, had neglected to give documents relating to an ongoing scam investigation despite being chased by the watchdog for nine months.
Neither Wilson nor the firm was under investigation by TPR, but was asked to share documents relating to a property linked to a separate individual in the regulator's investigation.
The firm was originally contacted for the documents via an information notice on 26 June 2015, with a deadline of 30 June. This deadline passed, and the firm contacted TPR on 7 July to say it could not recover the documents from storage.
On 14 August, the firm again contacted TPR stating it had now recovered the documents and was then copying them. However, on 12 November, the company asked for a further seven days to produce the documents.
The documents were still not received by TPR, and the watchdog was forced to obtain a search warrant for the firm's Knightsbridge offices to secure the documents in March 2016.
Following this, TPR believed the firm's failure to voluntarily hand over the documents warranted criminal prosecution, and so used its power, under section 72 of the Pensions Act 2004, for the first time to initiate proceedings in August last year.
On 4 April, both Wilson and the solicitors pleaded guilty to refusing to provide documents "without a reasonable excuse", and were fined a total of £16,000 by Brighton Magistrates' Court.
District Judge Christopher James said TPR had used its tools appropriately in the case, and reprimanded Wilson and Ashley Wilson Solicitors for insufficient checks and balances between partners.
Wilson was handed a £4,000 fine, and ordered to pay £7,500 of costs as well as a £120 victim surcharge. The firm was told to pay a £2,700 fine, £2,500 of costs, and a £120 victim surcharge.
TPR executive director of frontline regulation Nicola Parish said the action could have been avoided.
"Our staff received a series of woeful excuses rather than the information they had requested," she said. "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 mover 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 TPR will not be tolerated."
Ashley Wilson Solicitors had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
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