A partner at leading regional firm Clarke Willmott has been struck off for lying to his client that settlement monies were on the way when he had not actually negotiated any settlement.
Gregory Stuart Saunders, who also used money from one client to pay the costs liability of another, said he had been “desperate and unable to cope”.
Mr Saunders, who qualified in 2000, joined Clarke Willmott in 2014 and was a partner in its Taunton office. He described himself as a “very active member of the legal profession” at the time of the misconduct, chairing Somerset Chamber of Commerce and the Taunton Strategic Advisory Board, as well as being a trustee and director of Arts Taunton.
He accepted that he should be struck off in an agreed outcome with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that has been approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
Mr Saunders handled a matter for ‘Client F’, which had been subcontracted by ‘Company G’ to complete civil engineering works in Birmingham. Various disputes arose involving different parties.
In February 2018, he used £20,700 being held on behalf of an unrelated client, ‘C’, to pay costs owed by Client F in one of those cases.
He obtained Client C’s permission to transfer the money on the untrue basis that the payment was for Clarke Willmott’s fees.
In October 2018, Mr Saunders sent Client F a draft settlement agreement for a claim it brought against Company G, under which it would receive £38,000. Client F accepted the terms but in reality the solicitor had not actually progressed the matter or negotiated a settlement.
Mr Saunders repeatedly misled Client F by stating that the money had been received from Company G and making excuses for why it had not been paid.
“I should be sending you some Christmas cheer in the form of money once I’m back in early next week… Thought I would surprise you with news rather than be chased,” he wrote in one email.
Eventually Client F complained to the firm, some three months after the money was meant to have been paid.
Mr Saunders apologised to the client, reported the matter to the SRA and resigned from the firm in March 2019.
Mr Saunders admitted that he had conducted himself in a “reprehensible fashion” and should be struck off.
But, in non-agreed mitigation detailed by the SRA, he explained that he had been under “extreme pressure” at work and as a senior member of the team “felt unable to share the difficulties” with colleagues.
The SRA referenced personal and medical evidence but redacted the detail. He told the SRA that he had difficulty even recalling the events that took place”, saying that, at the time, he was “simply unable to cope with his professional obligations”.
“Even now Mr Saunders finds its difficult to address these issues and finds it almost impossible even to enter a law firm even for the purposes of obtaining legal advice.”
He said he had “lost everything” as a result. He was not seeking to avoid responsibility for his actions, “but rather to explain to the SDT that those events and his conduct were completely out of character and came about as a result of the various issues in his professional and personal life”.
As a result, Mr Saunders did not accept that he was dishonest “on the basis that he never intended to mislead Client F and certainly never intended to deprive Client C of the funds held of client account for him”. Rather, he had been “desperate and unable to cope”.
Nonetheless, the SRA said that “ordinary, decent people” would consider his behaviour to be dishonest.