A partner who misled beneficiaries about the progress of a case to resolve a dispute over estate assets and then found himself “too embarrassed” to tell them the truth has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that, as his deception became “more elaborate”, Rodney Patrick William Etherington “recounted conversations with court staff that could never have occurred”.
The tribunal found that over a period of around six weeks, Mr Etherington misled the residuary beneficiaries on “repeated occasions”, in each case giving them the false impression that an application had been made to the court.
Approving an agreed outcome with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the SDT heard that Mr Etherington qualified as a solicitor in 2007 and was appointed a director of O’Neill Richmonds, based in the Newcastle office, in March 2016. He was head of the private client department.
Mr Etherington ceased to be a director of the law firm from October 2018 and left in April this year. The SRA received a report from the firm in July 2018,
He admitted acting dishonestly and acting without integrity and dishonestly by making misleading statements to the testator’s two sons.
The tribunal heard that there were “difficulties in the administration” of Mrs EG’s estate, and a dispute arose between the executors – one of her sons and her daughter.
The executors had each appointed their own solicitors before the firm took over administration of the estate. Another partner, John O’Neill, was appointed independent professional executor in place of the original executors.
Since the beneficiaries disagreed over the manner in which the assets (mainly Mrs EG’s home) should be handled, O’Neill Richmonds decided to apply to the court for a direction on who should administer the estate and how the administration should proceed.
During Mr Etherington’s absence on holiday in July 2018, one of Mrs EG’s sons discovered, through correspondence with Mr O’Neill, that he had been misled by Mr Etherington.
In a letter to the SRA, Mr Etherington said he had thought he could handle the application, though he was a private client lawyer and not a litigator.
But he admitted, “with the benefit of hindsight, that he was out of his depth on this particular case which was more contentious and difficult than was consistent with his previous experience”.
Mr Etherington “felt it difficult” to challenge one of the beneficiaries and explain that it was taking longer than anticipated to finalise the application.
The solicitor “found himself embarrassed and unable to correct the position” when asked for an update.
Mr Etherington agreed that he should be struck off and pay £2,800 in costs.