A solicitor’s 55 years of practice have come to an end after he was struck off for overcharging probate clients.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that the motivation for Harold Anthony Newell’s conduct was “to maintain the continuation of his practice and his standing in the community”.
It continued: “His misconduct extended over a significant period of time and was a repeated pattern of behaviour which represented a gross breach of trust: the administration of estates of the deceased with no oversight whilst families and beneficiaries were still grieving placed him in a great position of trust.”
Mr Newell was born in 1938 and qualified in November 1963. He had been a sole practitioner running TS Barkes & Son of Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire since 1984 until the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) closed down the firm last year.
Mr Newell told the SDT that, until the turn of the century, he had been a ‘general practitioner’, but subsequently focused on conveyancing and private client work. He also outlined the significant health problems he had suffered since 2008.
He said his usual practice in probate matters was to reach “an understanding” on costs with the executors or beneficiaries at the outset; this was often not put in writing because “invariably the persons involved were long-standing clients and friends who did not require this”.
The tribunal found that Mr Newell failed to provide a client-care letter or any written costs information at the outset of the seven probate files put before it.
He told the SRA that his standard practice was to charge the lower of either £150 an hour (£175 for more complex matters) or 1% of the gross estate.
The regulator said that, on this basis, Mr Newell’s costs in the seven files represented overcharging of between 91% and 312%.
The SDT ruling said: “The tribunal contrasted [Mr Newell’s] consistent failure to provide any written costs information in probate matters and his submission that ‘he always tried to comply with the spirit of the rules but would often be under too much pressure of work to deal with the formalities’, with his contention that in conveyancing matters (as to which no complaint was made) he would always provide the client with precise billing information which was evidenced on the file.”
It found that his “arbitrary” charging breached several of the SRA principles, including acting with integrity: “He failed to act with moral soundness, rectitude and steady adherence to the standards of the profession.”
Further, his actions were dishonest. “The tribunal was satisfied that his conduct would be regarded as dishonest by the standard of ordinary decent people and that he had dishonestly overcharged his clients, and had done so for a significant period of time.”
Further, Mr Newell was found to have ignored three Legal Ombudsman (LeO) decisions, and orders of the court in two of them when LeO sought to enforce its findings, as well as an SRA adjudicator’s decision in relation to a breach of undertaking.
“On his own account he had let the papers build up on his desk and then sought to shift the responsibility to junior staff for not adequately bringing them to his attention,” the tribunal noted.
The tribunal also found that the solicitor failed to disclose that he had been subject of investigations by the SRA and LeO to his professional indemnity insurers, and in doing so acted dishonestly in a bid to reduce his premiums, especially as the firm was not in a good financial state.
The SDT said the seriousness of the conduct was aggravated by the fact that Mr Newell “had taken advantage of vulnerable people from whom he concealed his wrong doing”.
At the point his practice was intervened in, he had 700 live cases “and the actual extent of his misconduct was unquantified”.
Despite his age, state of health, length of service in the profession and previously unblemished disciplinary record, striking him off was the “only appropriate sanction”.
Mr Newell was also ordered to pay costs of £44,000.