A firm and two of its senior solicitors whose client embarked on a care home fees scam have been sanctioned for acting without integrity.
Merseyside firm Brown Turner Ross Limited, along with managing director David Bushell, were each fined £25,000 for their role in the misconduct, while director Kevin Ross was suspended for six months.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found the respondents’ actions were inadequate but not deliberate or dishonest, in acting for a company which sold trust deeds to elderly and vulnerable people to ensure their home would not be appropriated to pay for care home fees.
The product was described as likely to be worthless, and various directors of the company were prosecuted and convicted of dishonesty offences in 2015 for running what the judge described as a ‘scam’.
The tribunal heard Brown Turner Ross became involved with the company after November 2012, following a meeting with a barrister who would provide trust deeds that would be issued under a cover letter by the firm.
From March 2013, the firm provided the trust deeds itself, and in total it received instructions from the company on 135 individual matters and completed 70 trust deeds.
The firm, Bushell and Ross acknowledged that customers of the company were not informed to seek independent advice. The Solicitors Regulation Authority alleged that they did nothing in response to warnings from trading standards about a couple in their 80s who were visited by a salesman and sold a trust that purported to protect them from death duties and future care home fees.
The SRA submitted there were sufficient grounds to believe that salesmen pretending to be lawyers were visiting elderly people in their homes and misleading potential customers about the certainty of the products they were selling. It was alleged the client’s customers were not asked what was going on, the template letter sent to customers was not change, and the client relationship was only terminated as the firm was not being paid.
The firm and solicitors did not accept they responded inadequately, but the tribunal said the trading standards contact was sufficient to ‘sound alarm bells’ for a solicitor, causing them to pause and make sure customers knew to take independent legal advice. All three respondents were found to have had their independence compromised.
The tribunal rejected allegations of dishonesty against all three, saying that while the business of their client was ‘distasteful’ and firm and solicitors’ involvement was ‘handled shoddily’, they were not participating in or facilitating a scam.
In mitigation, it was submitted the firm had taken steps even after it ceased to act for the company to ensure products purchased were provided and registered. There was no significant financial gain from their actions, and this was a decent firm which had learnt lessons.
In its judgment, the tribunal said the client’s business was a ‘dubious and insalubrious enterprise which experienced solicitors should have treated with great caution’.
The firm and the two solicitors will jointly pay £40,000 towards SRA costs.
In a statement made following publication of the judgment, a spokesperson for Brown Turner Ross said: 'Throughout our dealings with [the company] the firm acted in good faith. When it ceased communicating with its customers, Brown Turner Ross honoured the commitments that had been made to the individuals, retaining the integrity of the original agreements and demonstrating a duty to the customers that the company had failed to show at our own cost.'