A solicitor who took money from his elderly client’s account and fabricated attendance notes to justify huge invoices has been banned from the profession.
Stephen Acres, 54 this year, who was a partner at now defunct Hertfordshire firm Stanley De Leon Solicitors, was found guilty of ‘outrageous plundering’ of his client’s assets. In a judgment published this week the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal said his was ‘one of the most deplorable’ cases of dishonesty it had encountered.
Acres obtained power of attorney for his client in April 2013: three years later the Solicitors Regulation Authority received a report from the Office of the Public Guardian raising questions over his honesty in the management of her property, financial affairs, health and welfare.
An OPG investigation had concluded the client lacked mental capacity and Acres had failed in his duty of care. He was removed as attorney in September 2016, at the same time as his firm ceased trading.
Further investigations uncovered a hitherto unknown bank account belonging to the client which had been involved in transactions adding up to £320,000 over the previous two years. Acres had made out cheques and carried out online transfers to pay money into his personal account, and made a number of card payments and cash withdrawals from his client’s account.
Her care home confirmed she had not left the premises during those two years and indeed had been confined to her bed since October 2015.
Acres had invoiced £12,000 for one-hour weekly visits in 2015 and £6,000 for sorting through photographs and arranging delivery to the care home. Visitor logs recorded that he went to see the client just once in 2015 and the tribunal found no evidence he carried out any of the other work invoiced for.
The solicitor also drew on the client’s money to pay £7,500 costs owed to the SRA following tribunal proceedings involving him in 2012. The tribunal found his explanation, that he made a genuine error, ‘incredible’ and his conduct dishonest.
Acres, who described himself as a private client solicitor ‘specialising in advising the elderly’, was also found to have knowingly handed over control of his client’s affairs to protect his own interests following the breach of duties. He also deliberately misled the OPG and SRA in a bid to hide the extent of his mismanagement of the client’s affairs.
The tribunal judgment said misconduct of the type displayed by Acres ‘did not get much worse than this’. It added: ‘As an attorney, he was expected and trusted to conduct [her] affairs properly and for her benefit. Instead he acted in gross breach of that trust and repeatedly stole money from her.’
Acres was struck off and ordered to pay £70,000 costs.