The High Court has ruled that the Solicitors Regulation Authority was right to intervene into the practice of a solicitor suspected of dishonesty in a probate matter.
Mr Justice Newey said the conduct of Michael John Elsdon, who qualified in 1985, and of the firm of which he was director, Sai-Donne Limited, was ‘extraordinary and disturbing’.
The case arose over the estate of Kathleen Lilley, valued at £159,000, the judgment said. The money was supposed to have been split three ways equally, yet more than six years passed during which one of the deceased’s sons received nothing at all, and his siblings less than £26,000 each.
In contrast, Elsdon, who was co-executor with one of the beneficiaries, Arthur Lilley, took more than £50,000 from the estate, the judgment said. His bills were assessed at less than £8,000.
At one point Elsdon prepared a bill of around £20,000, based on a charging rate of £275 an hour in January 2013, and withheld it from Mr Lilley for 11 months. He also brought proceedings against his co-executor.
Lawyers for Elsdon did not argue there was no scope for criticism, but they questioned whether the evidence available justified the SRA intervention in December 2014, saying there was no ‘clear and cogent evidence’ of dishonesty.
But Newey, in The Law Society v Elsdon & Ors, said the risks attached to withdrawing the intervention outweighed those of continuing it.
He ruled that the available evidence did provide clear evidence of dishonesty as well as indicating breaches of code of conduct and accounts rules.
‘On the basis of the (admittedly less than comprehensive) material before me, I consider that Mr Elsdon and Sai-Donne cannot safely be trusted with the administration of estates or other work,’ said Newey. ‘There is reason to think that Mr Elsdon has lost his ethical compass.’
The judge said other matters involving the firm that were brought before the court were of ‘considerable concern’.
The court heard evidence of over-charging in five separate cases, with Elsdon taking ‘inappropriate steps’ to deter challenges to fees being made or pursued.