A law firm owner whose practice of making improper transfers from client to office account was reported to the regulator “with a heavy heart” by a member of staff.
Sole principal Raymond Lawrence Toms has been struck off after admitting “numerous and repeated” acts of dishonesty, including “using funds to which he had no right to aid his own cash flow and financial position, and to cover up previous transfers”.
Though one of the four solicitors working at his Plymouth firm, Goldbergs, contacted the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) through its ‘red alert’ email address in 2015, the regulator only began investigating after receiving a qualified accountants’ report in 2018.
Mr Toms, admitted in 1973, was principal of Goldbergs from November 2010. The firm closed in September 2018, and the SRA intervened in his practice that November.
The solicitor who reported Mr Toms to the SRA said: “I make this report with a heavy heart. You will no doubt consider whether I have been under a professional obligation to make a report earlier.
“I really do not want to jeopardise my colleagues’ jobs but the situation cannot continue indefinitely.”
The solicitor said he had “no desire” to see his employer face disciplinary action but he was satisfied that Mr Toms was in breach of his duties and a risk to clients.
In an agreement between the SRA and Mr Toms, approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), the SRA said there were “serious, systemic and calculated acts of dishonesty committed over an extended period”, which benefited the sole practitioner to the detriment of others, including charities and vulnerable people.
The motivation of Mr Toms was to “limit the impact” of the financial difficulties of Goldbergs.
The SRA said that in “so misusing and concealing misuse of client money, including overcharging clients”, Mr Toms “acted in breach of a position of trust in which he was placed both by clients and by junior solicitors”.
He admitted acting dishonestly in making improper transfers from the firm’s client to its office account and seeking to disguise them by “cancelling, delaying or failing to send cheques”.
He also admitted failing to pay disbursements to third parties, such as counsel and after-the-event insurers, and to comply with the accounts rules.
The SRA said Mr Toms made improper transfers of money in relation to eight matters, causing a minimum client account shortage of £325,500.
He withdrew money from client account to “purportedly satisfy cheques he was sending to clients”, but they were not sent to the clients and “instead the money was to be used to run the firm”.
He withdrew additional money for costs when clients had not been notified of them and when they were in excess of the work done.
In the case of Person A, who died in September 2017 appointing Goldbergs as trustees and executors of her will, the solicitor who dealt with the matter said she did not know that over £45,000 had been raised in bills for an estate valued at just over £331,000.
She said that of the 18 bills raised, she had prepared only two of them, and she was only aware of funds being transferred from client to office account when she was informed by the SRA.
In mitigation, Mr Toms said that he moved from Plymouth and “away from the West Country” five years ago.
The agreement said: “He thought that, he would be able (with monthly visits to the office, where he had worked since 1970) to run the practise remotely and comply fully with his professional responsibilities but he was, very sadly, wrong.”
The SDT said Mr Toms’ conduct was such that it was “untenable” for him to remain on the roll.
Mr Toms was struck off and ordered to pay £17,250 in costs.