A solicitor who was jailed last year for stealing millions from her clients and the Church of England has seen the amount she has to pay back increased by £500,000 – to nearly £2.5m – or face a further eight years in prison.
The Court of Appeal found that the judge who issued the confiscation order against Linda Box had been wrong to reduce the value of various ‘tainted’ gifts she had given to her family from the stolen money.
Box, formerly senior partner of Wakefield law firm Dixon Coles McGill, pleaded guilty a year go to nine counts of fraud, two of forgery and one of theft, and was sentenced to seven years.
Over the course of 12 years she stole over £4m, mainly from estates, to fund a lavish lifestyle. It is estimated that the final figure could be as high as £10m stolen.
Box – who was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in 2016 – had also taken advantage of her role as registrar with the Diocese of Wakefield to steal a further £63,000.
At a hearing in Leeds Crown Court last November under section 9 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, Her Honour Judge Belcher ordered her to pay back more than £1.9m in three months or face having eight years added to her current sentence.
The figure combined Box’s free property of nearly £1.5m and tainted gifts of £470,000. The prosecution appealed on the basis that the tainted gift figure should have been higher by approximately £500,000.
The Court of Appeal recorded that HHJ Belcher held, in effect, that it would be disproportionate to include sums in the recoverable amount unless there was some legal or moral basis on which to consider that they would be recoverable by the respondent from the recipients.
Sitting with the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Edis said it was not possible for the circuit judge to reach this conclusion without receiving evidence from Box or her family – which she did not.
“Accordingly, it was not possible for the judge to come to the conclusion that the order, unless adjusted, would not result in the recovery of the proceeds of crime. Therefore, there was no proper basis on which that order could be held to be disproportionate.
“All cases are different and this is a fact specific area where generalisations are to be avoided, but it is hard to conceive of a case where it would be proper to reduce the amount in a confiscation order in the tainted gifts regime without hearing oral evidence from the respondent and called on her behalf, and without full disclosure of documents concerning the financial circumstances of all relevant persons.”
HHJ Belcher was also wrong “to embark on a process almost akin to tracing the stolen assets into the hands of third parties, and to find that if no assets could be found which represented the gift, then that gift should not be included in the recoverable amount”.
Edis J said: “This is not the way the statutory tainted gifts scheme works. It is clear from the terms of her ruling that the judge was seeking to identify the assets which the recipients had which were related to the tainted gifts. This is not the right approach…
“The tainted gifts regime operates by the imposition of an order on the convicted person as an incentive for her to recover the proceeds of her crime from persons to whom she has passed them by whatever means are available to her.
“What those persons have done with them, or whether they received them knowing of their criminal origin, are likely to be largely irrelevant factors. What matters is whether the court is satisfied that the resulting order is disproportionate in the sense which we have explained above. If not, then the order must be made in the full value of the tainted gifts.”
As a result, the court allowed the appeal and substituted the sum of £2.45m in the confiscation order, but did not make any adjustment to the prison sentence in default.