A sole practitioner who admitted having no understanding of accounts rules has been struck off for overcharging clients.
Edgar Stephen George Thomas, who ran a practice in Pembrokeshire, said he had never worked out the average cost of a probate matter and had not updated his ‘rubbish’ client care letter for a decade.
Thomas was charged by the Solicitors Regulation Authority on six counts relating to overcharging and misleading clients about the costs of legal work.
A three-day hearing at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal last month heard that Thomas charged £291,000 for three matters which he had valued collectively as costing £30,000. In total he made 163 transfers relating to the three probate matters over several years.
On two further occasions, Thomas had charged £54,000 for a matter which the SRA estimated should have cost £8,400. Thomas admitted he could offer no explanation why no client care letter was on file for this matter.
Further investigations by the SRA found six matters where Thomas had made dozens of transfers for sums of between £29,640 and £150,600.
In one particular matter, Thomas had charged £123,600 for work which he had estimated would cost £2,000.
In an interview with the SRA in June 2014, a month before his practice was shut down, Thomas had told the regulator that the issue of costs was ‘between me and my client’ and that it should not interfere.
He explained clients were informed of costs at the conclusion of probate matters through an estates account and the charges were based on ‘what I deem the file to be worth’ and reflected his level of experience and expertise.
Despite the lack of paperwork explaining the bills, Thomas said they were an accurate reflection of the work that had been done.
He accepted there was little time recording on his files, but explained he was too busy running a practice which undertook mainly conveyancing work.
Thomas, who had been practising for 25 years, accepted that his client care letter was ‘ridiculous’ and that he in fact charged £350 per hour as opposed to the quoted £200 an hour.
He stated that, when he started out, firms charged on the basis of ‘how much a file weighed’ and he based his charges on the work he had done. Asked whether he should have instigated a conversation about costs, he replied: ‘I should say yes but it never crossed my mind.’
But the tribunal found all allegations against Thomas proven after concluding that costs estimates provided by him ‘bore absolutely no relation’ to the costs actually charged.
In one case, the SDT pointed out, Thomas had transferred costs of £150,600 where only a bill of £600 appeared on the file.
He knew he was not entitled to take, but in any event did take, client funds without clients' knowledge or consent and in circumstances where those funds were not properly due, the tribunal said.
The tribunal said it was ‘inconceivable’ the level of overcharging was an accident or mistake, and Thomas' explanation was ‘fanciful and completely implausible’. He had not completed the work for which he charged and ‘knowingly and consciously’ charged clients excessive amounts.
The SRA submitted that his dishonesty was ‘all the more repugnant’ where he was the executor of an estate, and had no client to which he was answerable.
The tribunal appeared to agree, adding: ‘That [Thomas] had been the sole executor in relation to some of the exemplified matters made his misconduct all the more serious; he had blatantly abused his position of trust in the most despicable way.
‘The tribunal found his actions to be completely abhorrent. In some instances, the fees charged as a percentage of the value of the estate were so large as to be completely disproportionate. This type of excessive overcharging was simply a disgrace.’
Thomas was struck off the roll of solicitors and ordered to pay costs of £76,000.