Saturday, June 10, 2017

England Not Immune To Problems Created By Sticky-Fingered Lawyers

From a blog post by the London, England-based law firm Herbert Smith Freehills LLP:
  • This blog post will consider a number of recent cases in England where solicitors have been convicted of offences or struck off the register for misappropriating client funds from deceased estates. These shed light on the surprising levels of abuse uncovered by the Courts and the English Solicitors Regulation Authority (the “SRA”), and the zero tolerance approach taken to solicitors who seek to personally benefit from the trust placed in them by their clients.

    A number of common themes run through the cases, namely that offenders have often sought to explain and justify their actions through desperation, ill health and financial hardship. Further, the solicitors in question generally practised in local firms or as sole practitioners, where clients place a high degree of trust in them due to their geographical proximity and personal familiarity. Finally, the offences appear to have taken place over a number of years, with initial abuse turning into a pattern of offending.

    During its investigations the SRA asserted that it is only in exceptional circumstances that a solicitor found to have acted dishonestly will avoid being struck off the register. Explanations and mitigating circumstances advanced in the cases below were not sufficient to overcome the serious breaches committed and the need to uphold public confidence in the legal profession.

    Simon Kenny, Emma Coates and Stephen Hiseman

    Kenny (60), a former deputy district judge, his assistant Coates (47) and Hiseman (60), a "fee earner" in their firm CK Solicitors who had no legal qualifications, were convicted of fraud and jailed in January 2017.

    The fraud

    The trio were involved in the transfer of monies from CK Solicitors' client accounts over a period of four years, telling staff that monies were being moved to offshore accounts due to the Northern Rock banking crisis. At one point, approximately £60,000 of client money was transferred to Hiseman's own foreign bank account. Hiseman had also misappropriated approximately £5,000 from a client through misrepresenting the outcome of a debt settlement.

    When CK Solicitors was shut down by the SRA in 2011, Coates established another firm, Coates and Co., and continued to misappropriate £85,000 from the estate of an elderly client.
    ***
    Linda Mary Box

    Box (67) was a senior partner at Dixon Coles & Gill when she misappropriated £4 million of client money, around £2 million of which was taken from deceased estates.
    ***
    Giles Scott

    Scott (64) was a partner at Langleys Solicitors LLP when he abused his power of attorney over the accounts of four clients to make improper transfers totalling £468,712.
    ***
    David Christopher James Barr

    Barr (66) was a partner at Brighouses Solicitors in Southport when he misused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of client money to expand his property portfolio and to settle personal debts.
    ***
    Conclusion

    The Courts and the Tribunal have emphasised the sanctity of the trust placed in solicitors by their clients and the risks posed to public confidence in the profession if solicitors abuse that trust for personal gain.

    It is clear that pleas of financial hardship, ill health and stress are insufficient evidence to justify a sanction other than a strike off for solicitors' dishonesty. Such circumstances are also unlikely to be taken as mitigating factors in Court.

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