A veteran solicitor who overcharged costs on estates work then ignored court instructions to repay the money has been struck off.
Michael John Elsdon transferred almost £40,000 from his client account to his office account in November 2012, despite an assessment that he was entitled to charge only £8,000.
Despite two High Court rulings confirming the smaller amount, Elsdon failed to take any steps to repay the estate.
The solicitor, who was found to be dishonest in charging for a disbursement that had not been paid, was banned following a two-day hearing at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in December. He was also ordered to pay almost £97,000 to cover the costs of the prosecution.
Elsdon, who turns 70 this year, was a sole practitioner practising under his own name and a director of former Devon firm Sai-Donne Limited. He was named as a co-executor of a will after the death of a client in 2008, with the estate to be shared equally between her three children.
By the end of July 2011 Elsdon had produced three invoices covering a 30-month period coming to a total of £50,701, based on an hourly rate of firstly £250 and then £275.
Two of the children made no challenge to Elsdon’s costs, but the third, named as Mr L, continued to refuse to agree the charges and the matter went for assessment in the court.
In November 2012, Master Gordon-Saker assessed Elsdon’s costs at £8,000, having noted the hourly rate charged was ‘excessive’ for the work.
Subsequent emails from the solicitor confirmed he recognised he was not entitled to charge the estate anything more than £8,000, but eight days after the court assessment he transferred five times that amount to the office account.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority, prosecuting, said this amounted to a ‘continuing and consistent breach of his duty’ to the client’s estate.
Elsdon had not informed the two beneficiaries who accepted his bill of the costs dispute with the third, and even proposed to use his position to recover money from the share of the estate due to them. The tribunal said Elsdon was ‘clearly trying to get [the two accepting parties] to carry the burden of the fact that Mr L was disputing the fees charged to the estate’.
In 2015, the High Court ruled that the SRA was right to intervene into his practice after being suspected of dishonesty in a probate matter.
The tribunal judgment said Elsdon had been motivated by ‘personal financial gain with an undercurrent of greed’ and noted that even an inexperienced solicitor would have known what was happening to be wrong.
‘The impact of the misconduct upon the public and the reputation of the legal profession was significant,’ added the tribunal. ‘In terms of the administration of [the] estates the behaviour was so appalling that it could not help but harm the reputation of the profession.’
No mitigating factors were identified, and the tribunal found no exceptional circumstances to justify any sanction other than a strike-off.