A solicitor struck off for “outrageous plundering” of the assets of an elderly client suffering from dementia has now been jailed for six years.
The judge said Stephen Acres, 58, was entirely motivated by his own needs, with little concern for his victim.
Mr Acres, then a partner at Stanley De Leon Solicitors in Hertfordshire, became a joint deputy for the affairs of one of his elderly clients, along with a relative of the client, due to health concerns.
In 2013, following the death of the relative and now with sole control of his client’s affairs, Mr Acres began taking money from the victim’s bank account.
He used a debit card to withdraw money between 2013 and 2016, spending it on goods, petrol, restaurants and the like for his own benefit. Mr Acres also transferred money to his personal bank account as well as to another person’s account, which was then funnelled back to him. In all, more than £340,000 was stolen.
According to Hertfordshire Constabulary, the offences first came to light when Mr Acres paid off a personal debt to another solicitor using a cheque that belonged to the victim’s bank account and applied to the ledger of the victim.
This was reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and an investigation commenced; however, Mr Acres claimed the payment had been a mistake and the case was adjourned pending further evidence.
In May 2015, the £225,000 proceeds of the sale of the client’s house were transferred to an unknown bank account, although Mr Acres claimed it belonged to a friend of the client.
This prompted further investigation by the SRA, who also questioned other payments made from the client’s account.
In 2016, the Court of Protection removed Mr Acres’ access to the accounts due to the mismanagement of the finances, and appointed a different firm of solicitors, which was able to request the bank statements and further information on the questionable transactions.
He was struck off in 2017, with the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal saying that “misconduct did not get much worse than this”.
The case was then referred to Hertfordshire Constabulary’s serious fraud and cyber unit, which established that the beneficiary of the £225,000 was in fact Mr Acre’s former partner, who sent the majority of it back to him.
He admitted to stealing the £225,000 and creating a false deed of variation to make it appear that the client had consented to this, pleading guilty in advance of the court case. However, he denied the charges of stealing other monies.
In March, he was found guilty of the remaining 11 charges following a trial and last week was sentenced to six years, with half to be served in custody.
Detective Constable Liz Heath, who led the investigation, said: “Stephen Acres was trusted to safeguard the finances of a vulnerable and elderly woman suffering with dementia. However, once the other attorney passed away, it gave Acres free access to the victim’s account to use it as though it were his own.
“He stole large sums of money from her, in order to pay off debts as well as towards a lifestyle and, despite claiming to have the intention of paying it back, he made no attempts to do so. He just continued to spend the money of an elderly woman, who had worked hard her whole life, and had believed he was there to do the right thing by her.”