The SRA Compensation Fund has paid out over £2.7m to clients of the law firm operated by Christopher Michael Bilmes, a solicitor jailed for fraud last month.
Mr Bilmes was convicted of five counts of fraud by abuse of position and two counts of fraud by false representation at Hove Crown Court and sentenced to four years and eight months in prison.
The day before, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) also struck him off.
He stole more than £1.7m from clients between 2014 and 2017 and also put pressure on clients to take high interest loans, which left them in serious financial difficulty when the Solicitors Regulation Authority investigated and closed down his firm, Bilmes LLP in Kent.
The tribunal heard that Mr Bilmes, born in 1977, was admitted in 2004. He set up the firm in 2008, providing conveyancing, matrimonial and litigation services.
Malcolm Haddow joined Bilmes as an associate in March 2017 and became a partner at the end of September 2017. The SRA shut it down less than two months later. There was no evidence that Mr Haddow was involved with, or aware of, the misconduct.
Mr Haddow told the SRA that he received a text in late October 2017 from Mr Bilmes’ father, who worked as a ‘senior conveyancing executive’, saying the firm “had hit the buffers and that there was a shortfall in the client account of around £500,000”.
The father told Mr Haddow that it was his job to sort out the problems; however, the password to the firm’s case management system had been changed and he discovered that the last bank reconciliations had been carried out in December 2016.
Mr Bilmes subsequently refused to co-operate with the SRA but in an agreed outcome with the regulator approved by the SDT, he admitted acting dishonestly in allowing a minimum cash shortage of £1.77m to accrue on the client account by November 2017, failing to remedy it and instead improperly withdrawing over £1.3m.
The regulator said that, between January and 26 October 2017, Mr Bilmes made 175 unexplained transfers totalling £1.32m from the firm’s client to its office account.
Of these, £657,600 was transferred to The Bilmes Organisation, in which Mr Bilmes’ father, mother and sister were officers. The company went into administration in late November 2017.
A further £26,200 was transferred to Swallows and Daggers, an entity of which Mr Bilmes and his father were directors and which was described by the firm’s former finance manager as the solicitor’s “pet project”, specialising in producing hoodies and T-shirts.
A further £218,500 was transferred to the office account to pay creditors.
Mr Bilmes also admitted failing to redeem mortgages of £431,900 and £150,400 in respect of two clients.
The SRA said it was “unable to calculate the full extent of the firm’s liabilities to clients” due to the “paucity” of accounting records.
Mr Bilmes refused to explain the shortage and none of the money was repaid. By the middle of March this year, the SRA said the Compensation Fund had paid out £2.73m to former clients, and recouped £135,000 from client money the firm had held at the time of the intervention.
Mr Bilmes told the SRA in mitigation that he suffered from “a number of complex mental health conditions”, but he did not “contest the outcome” agreed with the SRA.
He was also ordered to pay costs of £18,600.