Rebuke for solicitor who didn’t realise his client was dead

SRA: Solicitor’s conduct was reckless

A solicitor who did not realise that his client had died seven years previously when he purported to act for her has been rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Ian Johnson, a partner at Knipe Woodhouse-Smith in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, took instructions from the dead client’s son without trying to contact her.

According to a regulatory settlement agreement published by the SRA yesterday, in July 2016 Mr Johnson was instructed to represent ‘Mrs B’ over a lease extension on a property she owned.

Mr Johnson took instructions from Mrs B’s son, Mr B, who was a long-standing client of the firm.

“Mr Johnson did not contact Mrs B to identify or verify her identity. Nor did he ensure that Mr B was authorised to give instruction on her behalf,” the agreement said.

The solicitor “undertook significant work on the matter” for the next 16 months, during which he referred to Mrs B as his client in correspondence.

In November 2017, after the documents for the lease extension had been agreed and were ready to be signed by the parties, Mr Johnson wrote to Mrs B, enclosing a copy of the documents for the lease extension, as well as his firm’s terms of engagement for Mrs B to sign. He also asked for documents verifying Mrs B’s identity and address.

This was the first time Mr Johnson had tried to contact Mrs B directly.

The following month, Mr B informed Mr Johnson that his mother had passed away in 2009. Mrs B’s estate had not yet been finalised.

“When Mr Johnson learned that Mrs B has died, he informed the other side and stopped acting in the matter,” the SRA recorded.

The solicitor admitted failing to achieve outcome 7.5 of the SRA Code of Conduct because he did not verify and identify his client at the start of the transaction, as required by Regulation 5(a) of the Money Laundering Regulations 2007.

Further, he breached principle 6 of the SRA Principles – “You must behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services”.

The SRA said the rebuke was an appropriate sanction for Mr Johnson’s “reckless” conduct, marking its “moderate seriousness” and the impact it had on the clients on the other side, but also recognising that there was no dishonesty or lack of integrity.

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