A sole practitioner who overbilled clients on several estates and even occupied a property intended to benefit one of them has been struck off.
Joanne Power, sole principal at Essex firm Diamonds Legal, also delayed a £95,000 payment to beneficiaries by almost three years and asked the mother of beneficiaries to withhold information from others about their entitlements.
Power, admitted to the roll in 2002, insisted she had not intended to hide charges from clients or mislead them about costs. She maintained she had made honest mistakes, but with hindsight had started to ‘blur the lines’ between what was properly chargeable as legal work and what was not.
But the tribunal found several instances where she had acted without integrity and where she had been dishonest, describing her misconduct as ‘deliberate, calculated and repeated’.
At a two-day hearing in September, not attended by Power, the tribunal heard that SRA investigators had found one client matter where work valued at £30,000 was undertaken but more than £250,000 was transferred from client to office account in bills spanning six years. The only indication that costs information was provided to the estate was a handwritten, undated costs estimate of £200,000 over a 10-year period.
In some instances, investigators found, transfers appeared to have enabled the firm to pay office expenses: in January 2015, for example, there was a client to office transfer of £20,000 which enabled a payment of £14,843 to HM Revenue & Customs. Lawyers for Power admitted in a letter dated August 2017 that financial records made for ‘embarrassing reading’.
Power accepted that sums transferred sometimes reflected substantial elements of non-legal work that she had done, and could include an ‘element of uplift’ to her hourly rates.
Investigators also recorded that Power purchased a residential property in Loughton, three miles from her office, using the assets of, and for the purported benefit of, the estate of a client. She was then observed leaving the property early one morning with her dogs. Occupation of the property continued over two years, on various dates, for her personal use before she rented it out.
Power suggested the occasional occupation of the premises was a necessary function of the provision of services to the estate. The tribunal held that she had ‘exploited’ her professional role as a solicitor.
In mitigation, Power accepted her professional standards may have fallen short of what was expected and apologised. She maintained that any acts, omissions or failings on her part were never made with dishonest intent.
The tribunal found no exceptional circumstances and struck off Power. She must also pay £46,645 in costs.