A veteran solicitor who accepted bequests in clients' wills has been fined but cleared of acting dishonestly or without integrity. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that Piers Matthew Beach, former sole manager of Hampshire firm Wills Chandler Beach, made an ‘honest error’ when he failed to advise a client to take independent advice when a gift was increased from £10,000 to £20,000.
The tribunal heard this gift was provided for in the fifth version of the client’s will: Beach had advised her to seek independent advice after the first will but not done so subsequently. This was a breach of SRA rules relating to acting in the best interests of each client.
The tribunal also found that advice arranged for this client, and a second client who had left a gift to Beach, 72, in their will, was not ‘sufficiently independent’, with second opinions provided by a solicitor at Beach’s firm and a consultant legal executive engaged by the firm. The tribunal accepted that Beach genuinely believed the advice provided was appropriate and independent, but said the link between him and the two advisers was ‘too close’ to avoid a breach of SRA rules. It was ruled that Beach did fail to ensure the advice they received was sufficiently independent.
The regulator made allegations of lacking integrity and dishonesty against Beach, but the tribunal rejected both. The case cited both Wingate and Ivey, recent tests of the approach to integrity and dishonesty, in clearing Beach of these allegations.
With regard to integrity, the tribunal applied the Wingate test which stated, amongst other things, that professional duties did not require solicitors to be ‘paragons of virtue’.
In the case of Beach, the tribunal found he was not motivated by any personal gain, the second opinion advice had ultimately been correct, and no pressure was brought to bear on clients.
The judgment added: ‘An honest mistake on what was not a straightforward issue was regrettable but did not indicate that [Beach] had failed to adhere to the ethical standards of the profession.’
When considering dishonesty, the tribunal said it adopted the Ivey approach looking at the actual state of Beach’s knowledge, and how his conduct was considered by the standards of ordinary people. Again, the tribunal stressed this had been an honest mistake where Beach genuinely believed he had arranged for independent advice to be received by the clients. None of the failings identified would meet the Ivey test, the ruling concluded.
In mitigation, the tribunal heard Beach had practised for 38 years with no disciplinary history. He was an honest and upstanding man who went the 'extra mile' for clients and took a pastoral approach to his work. If the tribunal was minded to punish him, it should consider that his health had suffered and his firm had been destroyed by an SRA intervention. Where he had failed to advise the client who wanted to increase his gift to £20,000, Beach submitted he was focused on her capacity and other arrangements for her care.
More than a dozen testimonials were submitted in support of the solicitor.
The tribunal determined Beach should be fined £7,500 for misconduct but, in the absence of any integrity or dishonesty issues, said there was no need to restrict his right to practise.
The SRA applied for around £50,000 in costs, based partly on the submission of 237 hours of preparation for the tribunal hearing. The tribunal ordered that Beach pay £20,000 towards prosecution costs.