The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has struck off a matrimonial solicitor who oversaw improper withdrawals from the client account of his firm.
Between May 2012 and March 2015, Vernon James Burke was found to have improperly taken out more than £47,000 from the client account of Surrey firm Bridge Burke Solicitors, where he was sole principal.
He was also found to have cleared off residual balances on client accounts to a value of almost £4,000 by issuing bills of costs and paying them from client funds when there was no proper justification.
Burke, 57, admitted the charge of making improper withdrawals but stressed that no client suffered any loss as a result of the breaches and that in fact he had lost £4,000 as a result of overpaying a client.
He denied trying to clear residual balances through 17 bills of costs, saying he honestly and reasonably believed the sums billed were properly due to his firm in respect of work carried out for clients.
But the tribunal said the invoices were not consistent with others the firm had raised: some were handwritten and the majority did not contain an address. There was no evidence any of the 17 bills had been sent to clients.
Burke denied dishonesty, but the tribunal found he must have realised that in not taking steps to ensure clients had the invoices he was acting dishonestly.
In mitigation, Burke said he was not aware of accounts problems until after the departure of the firm's cashier. Monies had already been repaid to clients where appropriate and progress was being made to bring the accounts and reconciliations up to date.
He was ‘mortified’ to find the client account had a shortage and he believed the firm had taken steps to improve the running of his firm. He would immediately lose his sole source of income if he was struck off, and he supported his wife and three children.
But the tribunal said his culpability was high and he had acted in breach of a position of trust. Clients were deprived of their funds for two and a half years.
'The tribunal considered that this was a sad case and recognised that the consequences of the imposition of a strike-off would be significant,' added the judgment. 'However, the need to maintain the trust that the public placed in the profession and the provision of legal services was paramount. If the tribunal did not strike [Burke] off, there was risk of harm to the public, not from [him] who the tribunal considered would have learnt his lesson, but from the message that would be sent to the profession that it was acceptable to help oneself to small amounts of client money if subsequently it was repaid.'