Private client lawyer who pocketed clients’ fees is struck off

SDT: Oaths had to be resworn

A salaried partner who told clients to pay him in cash or with cheques made out to him, which he kept, has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

Paul Douglas Hills also admitted swearing the oaths himself on 16 probate applications, rendering them invalid, and taking the oath fees from petty cash on up to half of them.

Mr Hills, admitted in 1990, joined Pengelly & Rylands, based in Tenterden, Kent, as a private client associate in May 2017 and became a salaried partner eight months later. The firm had been incorporated into Hatten Wyatt, based in Gravesend, but retained its own name.

In an agreed outcome, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said the senior partner and COLP of Hatten Wyatt reported in July 2018 that a client’s daughter had complained about typing errors on a lasting power of attorney and said her parent had paid Mr Hills in cash.

The law firm was unable to locate a client file, which prompted a review of Mr Hills’ matters. He was dismissed the same month.

The firm reported to the SRA that he had “received payments on account of costs and disbursements directly from three clients and not accounted to the firm” for the money.

Hatten Wyatt had no record of acting for the clients because no files had been opened or invoices sent and was “not able to establish how many times” Mr Hills had taken money.

An SRA forensic investigator said Mr Hills had, on three occasions between November 2017 and April 2018, received cheques paid to his personal account, for sums between £164 and £660.

On three other occasions, the solicitor accepted cash, which he did not pay into any client account, totalling over £3,100.

Hatten Wyatt prepared to sue Mr Hills for them money, but he paid back “a sum which he estimated to be equivalent to the retained monies”.

The SRA identified eight occasions where Mr Hills acted for executors in preparing probate applications and swore the oaths himself, keeping the oath fees of £7 or £14. In a further eight applications, he swore the oath himself, but did not keep the fee.

The SRA said all the applications were invalid, because the oaths were not sworn by an independent solicitor. They had to redrafted and resworn at the firm’s expense.

Mr Hill said in non-agreed mitigation that he had been suffering from “stress, anxiety and depression” for some time before joining Hatten Wyatt.

He had always intended to pay the clients’ money into a client account, but failed to because of a combination of “error, oversight, disorganisation and issues with his health”.

He also claimed that some clients struggled to spell the firm’s name on the cheques and so he told them to make them out to him.

But Mr Hill did not argue his mitigation amounted to “exceptional circumstances”, meaning he should not be struck off.

The SRA said these were “serious acts of dishonesty” involving clients, “the majority of whom were elderly and vulnerable”.

Although the solicitor always said he intended to repay the money, he “took no steps to do so” until questioned by the firm.

He was struck off and ordered to pay £15,000 in costs.

The SDT also noted “the considerable delay” in the proceedings reaching it.

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