Solicitor struck off for ‘outrageous plundering’ from vulnerable client
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (‘SDT’) have struck of Mr Stephen Acres and awarded £70,000 in costs to the Solicitors Regulation Authority following sustained misappropriation from the accounts of an ‘elderly and extremely vulnerable client’.
Mr Acres ('the Respondent'), a former partner of Stanley De Leon, obtained a Lasting Power of Attorney (‘LPA’) in 2013 for an elderly client of his, who resided in a care home and lacked the mental capacity to deal with her assets. In 2016 the Office of the Public Guardian (‘OPG’) reported the Respondent to the Solicitors Regulation Authority ('the Applicant') following questions raised over transactions made under the LPA. The Respondent was removed from the LPA shortly after and his firm ceased trading.
OPG investigations brought to light transactions from the client's bank account totalling almost £320,000. Cheques had been paid and online transfers made to the Respondent’s personal bank account. Card payments and cash withdrawals for the Respondent’s personal endeavours had additionally been unearthed.
Further to this, the Respondent had fabricated attendance notes and raised false invoices to justify unmerited legal fees. For example, £12,000 had been invoiced by the Respondent’s firm in respect of weekly visits to the client at her care home in 2015 alongside a bill of £6,000 for sorting through photos and delivering them to the care home. Care home records, however, showed that only one visit was actually made by the Respondent in this period.
Finally, the Respondent used £7,500 to pay costs awarded to the Applicant in previous Tribunal proceedings in 2012.
The Respondent’s Position
Although the Respondent did not attend and was unrepresented at the Tribunal, he had submitted written evidence prior to the hearing. The Respondent put forward that he had made a ‘genuine error’ as a result of the confusing systems that the firm used. The Applicant, however, argued that the Respondent conveyed an ‘unacceptably lax attitude towards professional obligations’.
Although a number of allegations were made, the Respondent was found to be primarily in breach of Rule 20.1(a) of the Solicitors Accounts Rules 2011 and Solicitors Regulation Authority Principles 2, 4, 6 and 10.
Rule 20.1(a) of the Accounts Rules states that client money may only be withdrawn from a client account when it is ‘properly required for a payment to or on behalf of the client’.
The Principles outline that solicitors should act on the client’s instructions and in their best interests, protect client money and not diminish the public trust and confidence in the profession.
The Applicant argued that the SDT should use the test set out in Ivey v Genting Casinos  UKSC 67 that, firstly, the Tribunal should look at the Respondent’s subjective state of individual knowledge or belief and, secondly, on a ‘fact-finding’ objective basis, whether the Respondent’s conduct was dishonest to the standard of the ordinary, decent person.
The Tribunal was satisfied that the Respondent was aware of his misconduct and ‘conscious impropriety’ which he had sought to conceal with fabrication of documentation. They did not accept that the Respondent’s implausible assertion that he had made a series of ‘unfortunate’ errors, but stated that the Respondent had made a sustained series of dishonest transactions. The Tribunal went further to state that this was one of the ‘most deplorable cases of dishonest conduct’ that they had heard and that the Respondent’s actions were ‘beyond belief’ and ‘detrimental to public confidence in the profession’.
The SDT has an overriding objecting to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the profession and, as a result, struck off the Respondent. Referring to the case of Bolton v The Law Society EWCA Civ 32 they cited Sir Thomas Bingham’s observation that in cases of proven dishonesty ‘the Tribunal has almost invariably, no matter how strong the mitigation advanced by the solicitor, to order that he be struck off the role'.
The Applicant applied for just over £74,000 in costs stemming from their investigation and a number of hearings. The Applicant noted that the Respondent was made bankrupt during the course of the proceedings and therefore costs would fall under the order. The Tribunal awarded £70,000 to the Applicant.
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