‘Old-school’ solicitor struck off for using client fund
A practitioner who ran up a £202,000 cash shortage in the client account has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
Jeremy Humphrey Ashton Roberts, formerly sole practitioner and later principal at Cambridgeshire firm Bendall Roberts, admitted adopting a new system for handling client money from the mid-2000s to keep his firm’s overdraft below a £40,000 limit.
Roberts, who qualified in 1967, had tried to claim he was an ‘old-school’ solicitor who had failed to keep up with accounts rules and he denied he had acted dishonestly.
But the tribunal described this suggestion as ‘not credible’ and instead labelled Roberts’ conduct as ‘one of the most blatant and systematic instances of dishonesty which could be imagined’.
It added: ‘In repeatedly, over a long period of time, taking client money and using it without knowledge and consent of his clients/beneficiaries, [Roberts’] actions were clearly dishonest by the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people.
‘His conduct in relation to the significant number of cases in which he was an executor would be regarded as particularly reprehensible by the public.’
The tribunal heard that Roberts admitted four charges, including failure to keep other people’s money separate to that of the firm, and failure to give or send a bill of costs to clients prior to requiring payment of fees.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s forensic investigation report found that as at 30 September 2011, a minimum cash shortage of £202,718 existed in the firm’s client bank account.
Analysis of four wills and probate cases followed, during which the SRA found 21 office-to-client transfers adding up to £85,338 from January 2011 to September 2011.
Roberts admitted during an interview that he did interim bills on his probate matters but did not send bills out until the end of the matter. If he thought that during the course of the matter he might have charged too much, he would do an office-to-client transfer.
He told the SRA that the system had not been picked up as a problem by his accountants and he thought he was doing nothing wrong.
The system, adopted in the mid-2000s, meant that Roberts had the use of clients’ money for a period of time.
The SRA did not accept Roberts’ assertion that all monies had been repaid, and the tribunal said that irrespective of this, clients and beneficiaries had been deprived of interest in capital sums.
The tribunal found the cash shortage arose because of the use of Roberts’ system, and even if there was an intention to repay the misused money, that was not material to whether or not the action was dishonest.
‘The requirement for solicitors to keep client and office money separate is probably one of the most fundamental obligations, understood by all solicitors,’ added the tribunal.
As well as being struck off, Roberts was ordered to pay £31,600 in costs.