‘Old-school’ solicitor struck off for using client fund

Topics: Regulation and compliance,Wills & Probate

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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.

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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.

Readers' comments (27)

  • This type of behaviour, whilst indefensible, seems to be becoming more and more common. It would be an idea if SRA started to ask why as well as prosecuting those responsible. May I tentatively suggest that the increasing costs of compliance, in particular PII premiums, in particular for small firms, in particular for SPs, combined with reducing abilities to charge a proper fee, might in part be responsible?

    Something must be done! The reputation of the whole profession is tarnished by each case such as this.

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  • Well !!! I have heard of creative accounting but that takes the biscuit How is it that the accountants did not pick it up immediately in their audit ??/

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  • I think I agree here David. But £200k?

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  • Is there any wonder there has been so much discussion re third party escrow accounts ??

    Honestly, whilst you, yes you reading this may think you are immune and this only happens to other practices, wake up and smell the coffee.

    If TLS actually got the charges for operating these down (perhaps they could approach and Estate Agent or LMS to do the barrow boy negotiation) why would you bother to hold the money ? The interest on Office is crap, so take away the risk and see your PII premium drop through the floor.

    Oh...and if Barclays or whoever runs off with the client's money, or go bust, we're all businesses now, so don't worry, its not your problem, whereas it damn well is, if your Partner fuels his gambling habit on client and the SRA will simply say if you didn't know, you should have done and off to the SDT you go, with a nice costs order as the icing on the cake after strike off.

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  • no sympathy, you reap what you sow

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  • With all due respect David C, you have to decide which it is. In one breath, you say that this sort of behavior is indefensible (correct!), but then you go on to blame it on the cost of compliance etc. Well, sorry, but there can be no excuse for playing fast and loose with clients' money - if you can't afford to stay in practice, jack it in and go and do something else. This is as black and white for solicitors as it gets!

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  • The Gazette might want to clarify that the decision was against Jeremy Humphrey Ashton Roberts, not Jeremy Michael Roberts, who is also a sole practitioner in Cambridgeshire.

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  • Pity he wasn't a banker - then he would just have been bailed out by the tax payer and lost his golf club membership.

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  • Looks like the Accountants were just as clueless as to the SARs or simply turned a blind eye.

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  • So what's with the reference to 'old school solicitor'? There is nothing dishonest about being 'old school'!! If you ask me, most 'old school' solicitors (assume that means older, more experienced survivors) have earned the trust of their clients over a period of decades far more than the ABS sweatshops popping up all over the place. This article clearly betrays prejudice against those of us who have been around for a while.

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