“Disgraceful” solicitor misled elderly woman over outstanding fees

SDT: Conduct of the most egregious kind

A solicitor who misled an 89-year-old former client into giving him money she did not owe has been struck off, with a tribunal describing his actions as “disgraceful behaviour” capable of shattering public trust in the profession.

Robert Steven Callen had visited the woman at her home and pressured her to pay costs he claimed were outstanding.

Mr Callen, who is now 70 and qualified in 1984, retired from practice at the end of 2017, having been a consultant to Watford firm Penman Sedgwick.

According to a statement of agreed facts and proposed outcome put before the SDT by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), in 2015 he acted for ‘VHJ’, who was 81 at the time, on a personal injury claim after a road traffic accident which left her with serious injuries.

These included spinal problems which resulted in mobility issues and led to her requiring help with day-to-day activities and suffering constant pain.

VHJ also appointed Mr Callen and a friend as her attorneys to deal with matters due to her health condition. She executed a lasting power of attorney for health and welfare, which was registered in September 2017.

Three months later, Mr Callen settled her claim and said in an attendance note that he had advised VHJ that the proposed settlement would leave a costs shortfall of £15,000 which would be her responsibility.

However, VHJ told the SRA that she was not made aware of any shortfall and a follow-up letter from Mr Callen did not reference one.

Penman Sedgwick was paid £110,000 in costs by the defendant’s insurer and it wrote off the small balance this did not cover. The firm’s final invoice and schedule of costs confirmed this.

In early 2018, after Mr Callen had retired, he visited VHJ at her home. He told her that she owed him £15,000 for the work he had done for her. “He did not provide details of the work involved. He also did not provide a written invoice. VHJ refused to pay,” the SRA said.

He visited VHJ again a few days later and repeated his demand. This time VHJ agreed and gave him her chequebook for him to write out cheques which she then signed. Two for £5,000 each were made payable to Mr Callen’s partner and a friend, with a third for £1,000 in favour of his daughter. The first two were presented and paid.

VHJ later told Penman Sedgwick that she had given Mr Callen money and wanted it back. After meetings with its senior partner, VHJ contacted Mr Callen to demand the return of her money; he posted a cheque for £10,000 through her letterbox.

Mr Callen admitted that his conduct was dishonest and lacked integrity. He noted that the SRA had rejected his offer to remove his name voluntarily from the roll and undertake never to apply for restoration as an alternative to the tribunal proceedings.

He had enjoyed an otherwise “unblemished and exemplary record of professional service”.

The statement said: “This he has now lost and it is a matter of deep regret and shame to [Mr Callen] that he has done so in a manner wholly alien to his true character and principles and for which he wishes to apologise unreservedly to all affected by his lapse.”

The SDT acknowledged that Mr Callen had admitted all the allegations made against him. “However, this was misconduct of the most egregious kind in which he had obtained money, to which he was not entitled, from a woman vulnerable by reason of her age and infirmity.

“He had paid two visits to her home and following his false representations she handed him her chequebook and he wrote out the cheques. This was disgraceful behaviour capable of shattering the trust the public place in solicitors to protect their interests.”

The “difficulties” experienced by Mr Callen as set out in his mitigation – including ill-health and bereavement – did not constitute exceptional circumstances, nor did he contend that they did.

The SDT struck him off and ordered him to pay costs of £2,574.

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