A law firm principal who borrowed funds from the estates of deceased clients to cover shortages on other accounts has been struck off the roll.
Nicholas Skinnard, a sole practitioner with Cornwall firm Blight Broad & Skinnard, recorded or created a loan between estates without authority and then made payments out of the client account, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard. Skinnard, admitted in 1983, had told SRA investigators this was something the firm had done for decades and he believed the payments were proper at the time and in the interests of clients.
The tribunal also heard that Skinnard authorised and effected an £84,000 transfer from the client account ledger of an estate where he was executor to the firm’s office account. This was in order to settle his personal tax bill.
The tribunal found a ‘clear lack of moral soundness’ in Skinnard’s approach to the client account and that he showed a ‘clear disregard’ for his obligations as a solicitor. ‘In making the loans [he] had no regard to safeguarding the money for which he was responsible which constituted a lack of integrity,’ said the tribunal.
It also heard that Skinnard delayed repayments to estate beneficiaries because of shortfalls. In one matter, the solicitor applied for probate four and a half years after the client’s death, with no evidence to justify the delay.
The tribunal ruled that Skinnard was dishonest and knew the system resulted in shortages on estate accounts.
Skinnard did not appear before the tribunal in person, but in a letter he denied dishonesty and said he had ‘fallen foul’ of regulations. He accepted the SRA’s allegations of misconduct but continued to insist he had authority to make transfer in the majority of instances, and he believed he was generally acting in good faith.
In mitigation, he maintained that other firms operated similarly. He felt the SRA ‘fundamentally misunderstood’ the loan system and said it was compliant with the rules in place up to 2012.
He was struck off and ordered to pay £39,000 costs.