A solicitor who was gifted more than £400,000 by clients in their wills without them being given independent advice has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that Jonathan Leslie Horner, a former partner at Sussex Law Limited, was left a legacy by 10 clients over a period of four years, gifted either to him personally or his children.
In each case, clients were either given advice about their options by a paralegal who had previously worked as his secretary, given advice retrospectively, or not given advice at all. Each of the clients affected was vulnerable with few or no surviving relatives and many have subsequently died.
Horner, who had more than 10 years’ experience as a solicitor and acted in the preparation of at least 3,500 wills, was motivated by personal gain, the tribunal concluded.
Its judgment said: ‘In assessing the harm caused, the Tribunal found that the Respondent had massively damaged the reputation of the profession by preying on vulnerable clients and abusing his position.
‘Many of these clients were elderly, widowed, childless and in at least two instances were of doubtful capacity. In the case of MA there was a diagnosis of dementia.
‘There was harm caused to the families and other potential beneficiaries of these wills. While that harm could not necessarily be quantified, the damage to the profession was obvious and significant.’
The tribunal made it clear that where there was a conflict of interest, a solicitor should cease acting or remove himself from the legacy. If clients wanted to retain his services and include him in the legacy, it was essential that independent advice be provided before execution of the will. Instead of giving a list of names of solicitors to his clients, he asked his former secretary to provide the advice, when the tribunal found she was not capable of doing so.
Horner was found to have been dealing with potentially vulnerable clients and was under a duty to exercise ‘considerable caution’ when dealing with their matters.
Horner accepted that solicitors were required to exercise their independent judgement when it came to accepting gifts from clients, and clients’ need to take independent advice. But he did not concede that advice had to come from a lawyer, or that it expressly had to come before the execution of the will.
He submitted he had been an honest solicitor, at all times seeking to assist clients by carrying out their wishes. He believed that his clients retained capacity and the ability to cope with the detail concerned.
In his mitigation, Horner advanced that he had shown considerable insight and had a previously unblemished record, but the reality was he had been found to be dishonest and could cite no exceptional circumstances to avoid a strike-off. He must also pay SRA costs of £56,381.