“Old school” solicitor used £500,000 of client money to prop up firm

Probate: Solicitor overcharged one estate for 15 years

An “old school” solicitor in his late 70s who overcharged three estates and a trust by nearly £500,000 to provide cash flow for his firm has been struck off.

George Edward Nosworthy, who qualified in 1965 and is now 79, said he failed to adapt to the changing demands of legal practice and cut corners to keep his firm afloat.

He set up Cree Godfrey & Wood in North London in 1970 and practised there almost continuously until March 2021, when it was shut down by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

He held both compliance officer roles at the firm, whose main areas of work were residential property and probate and estate administration.

According to a statement of agreed facts and outcome – approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal – the SRA began investigating after a qualified accountant’s report and identified four matters where there were overcharges of £475,000 in total.

Three were estates and the other a trust set up by a will for the benefit of the testator’s disabled daughter. One of the estates dated back to 1995 and 115 invoices were raised over the following 25 years. In another, on which Mr Nosworthy began work in 2007, there were 97 invoices sent over 13 years.

Marc Banyard, the costs lawyer instructed by the SRA to review the files and estimate what the charges should have been, found a “similar pattern of charging” across all four.

This included little or no evidence of time recording, invoices containing insufficient detail of what was being charged for, invoices for significant round sums during “periods of apparent inactivity on the files”, and invoices raised in quick succession despite such inactivity.

Mr Nosworthy admitted his misconduct and that he had been dishonest. He had not paid the money back, to the detriment of the beneficiaries.

In mitigation, he said he had regularly worked seven days a week and had difficulties with controlling both the management and volume of work.

The increases in the costs of running a law firm, particularly professional indemnity insurance, made it “difficult to achieve the profitability required to remain a viable practice in the context of cash flow requirements”.

Mr Nosworthy said it was right to describe him as “old school” and so he had “struggled to keep up with the changes to regulation and the complex requirements of maintaining a legal practice in the modern world”

The mitigation went on: “He failed to cope with technology. He failed to maintain attendance notes where necessary and control through management and good practice procedures.

“In failing to maintain such practices, the consequences was both that there were times when he simply could not see the wood from the tress and became overwhelmed.” As a result, “corners were cut”.

Mr Nosworthy said he had felt stressed 24 hours a day and harassed by clients because “he fell behind from time to time, failed to bill properly on matters if at all, failed to maintain proper records and had no effective time-recording systems”.

In attempting to catch up, he “failed to address the essential requirement to maintain cash flow”, meaning that he billed some matters “knowing that the sums were improper”.

The mitigation went on: “He was often exhausted when dealing with transfers on a Sunday evening and sometimes took monies from the most convenient source when not knowing whether they were properly billable or not.”

Mr Nosworthy said the money was used just to pay staff and allow the business to continue.

He confessed that the SRA intervention had actually been a “welcome relief” and had finally given him a rest. He accepted that he should be struck off.

Through the sale of his business premises and of his home of 35 years, he has placed £760,000 into an individual voluntary arrangement (IVA) to repay creditors. “He could have simply gone bankrupt but proposed the IVA to do his best for all the creditors.”

The SRA was his biggest creditor and Mr Nosworthy said the money should cover some or all of its costs of intervention and repaying his clients.

Mr Nosworthy said he was ashamed of his “personal failings” and explained that he had been taking antidepressants since 2014.

He added that he and his wife have both suffered “significant stress through the intervention process and the changes to their day-to-day lifestyles owing to their change of circumstances”.

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