Partner who used client’s estate to buy a house struck off

A solicitor who used money from a client’s estate to buy a house he then lived in has been struck off, with the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) saying the public would be “horrified” by his actions.

James Borbor Allie, who at the time was a salaried partner at East London law firm Spence Horne, ignored the wishes of his client, the tribunal heard.

Under her will, ‘Client A’ left six specific bequests totalling £76,000 to six charities, but only one received anything, and that was just £250. The remainder of the estate was bequeathed to the residuary beneficiary, another charity, which has had to take legal action to try and get the money.

Mr Allie joined the firm in 2007 as a senior housing caseworker and qualified as a solicitor in 2010. He became a salaried partner in 2014 and left the firm in September 2019, after being dismissed for gross misconduct.

In March 2015, Client A signed a TR1 form to transfer Property 1 to Mr Allie. It was not for money or anything that had a monetary value.

Her will was executed a few days later in the presence of two witnesses, one of whom was Mr Allie and the other a Mr R, who later received payments of £33,000 from the solicitor. Mr Allie was appointed as sole executor.

Client A died in June 2016. Mr Allie transferred Property 1 to himself for nil consideration five months later.

Before the tribunal, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) identified unusual aspects of the will, such as identifying Mr Allie as a solicitor at the firm but then appointing him in his personal capacity. The will unnecessarily defined the terms ‘firm’ and ‘partner’.

“Mr Bullock [for the SRA] submitted that there were two possible explanations for the oddities in the drafting. It could be that Mr Allie was simply not a good draftsman,” it recorded.

“A more sinister explanation was that the will did not, in fact, reflect Client A’s testamentary wishes, but had been amended by Mr Allie to enable him to administer the estate of Client A without independent scrutiny by making himself the executor in a personal capacity.”

The SRA argued that there was “a strong inference” from the terms of the will that Client A believed Mr Allie and Spence Horne would handle it, rather than the solicitor personally.

Further, it noted, having given the property to Mr Allie, Client A had done nothing to protect her interest and ensure she could remain living there.

The inheritance tax form, meanwhile, said Client A owned the property, which was valued at £1m. The SRA said the TR1, will and IHT400 form were “problematic and inconsistent”.

The SDT made no findings as regards the legitimacy or otherwise of the TR1 as it was not part of the SRA’s case that it was fraudulent. It did not comment on the drafting of the will.

The SDT found that Mr Allie transferred at least £825,000 from the estate to his personal bank account, which he used to buy a second property, where he lived rent free.

It rejected the explanations Mr Allie gave as part of legal proceedings that his intention was to maximise the value of the estate by converting Property 1 into flats – he said he transferred it into his own name to secure a bridging loan – and invest in Property 2.

He said he moved in as he was supervising building works and had been evicted from his home.

Rather, the SDT said, Mr Allie had “misappropriated estate funds for his own benefit”. Indeed, the evidence “clearly demonstrated that far from increasing the value of the estate, Mr Allie’s conduct had considerably reduced” it.

“The tribunal did not accept Mr Allie’s stance that, whilst he was under a duty not to decrease the value of the estate, there was nothing to prevent him from increasing the value of the estate.

“The testamentary wishes of Client A had been clearly set out in her will. He had acted contrary to those wishes for his own personal gain. He had plundered her accounts and used those monies for his own purposes.”

The ruling indicated that there have been various High Court proceedings over the estate. In 2019, the court granted a without notice injunction preventing Mr Allie from dealing with the estate, including both properties, and removed him as executor and trustee.

In 2020, the court ordered him to make interim payments of around £350,000 to the substitute personal representatives.

The residuary beneficiary’s solicitors have calculated the loss to Client A’s estate to be around £1.4m.

Separately, Mr Allie was found to have made 35 payments into his personal bank account from 25 other client matters, totalling £116,000, and failed to account to his firm for profit costs and VAT of £18,500 so that the firm could settle the VAT element of bills.

The SDT said: “The tribunal determined that members of the public would be horrified to know that Mr Allie had misappropriated and misused estate monies for his own benefit, and further, that he had failed to pay specific bequests in order to retain those monies.”

His misconduct was “aggravated by its deliberate, calculated and repeated nature”, the SDT said.

It went on: “He consistently took money from the estate that he knew he was not entitled to. He had drafted bills so that clients and others thought that they were paying the firm, whereas the bank details provided were for his personal bank account.

“The firm was not aware that he was receiving monies in its name, nor was it aware that he was charging VAT in its name and thereafter retaining the VAT payments.

“Such conduct had continued over a period of three to four years. Mr Allie knew that his conduct was in material breach of his duties as a solicitor to both protect the public and to protect the reputation of the profession.”

Mr Allie was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £25,000.

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