A solicitor whose conduct “was about as dishonest as it could get” – and left the profession to pick up a £175,000 bill to compensate a vulnerable client he had “preyed on” – has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that Neil Adrian Aiston was in urgent need of funds as he was facing an intervention into his firm.
He persuaded a longstanding but vulnerable client (called Client 3) to make an unsecured loan of £175,000 to Client 1, money that Client 3 did not know was then to go back to the solicitor to fill a hole in his own client account.
That hole had come from him using money he was holding for other clients to make what was meant to be a loan to Client 1. The £175,000 was never repaid and a claim by Client 3 is now with the Solicitors Compensation Fund.
Mr Aiston qualified in 1979 and operated as a recognised sole practitioner in Croydon.
He had acted for Client 3 for 35 years and the tribunal accepted the client’s evidence that Mr Aiston knew that he had cancer and depression.
Client 3 told the tribunal that he felt “threatened, manipulated and groomed”. He had signed the loan document without reading it and under duress, he said.
The SDT accepted Client 3’s evidence that Mr Aiston had also refused to pay on the proceeds of a property transaction if he did not agree to the loan.
The tribunal ruled that the solicitor had acted when there was a conflict of interest and had been dishonest.
It said Mr Aiston had known about Client 3’s mental illness to a fuller extent than he had admitted, and had “manipulated” him.
“[Mr Aiston] knew that he was in urgent need of funds as he was facing the prospect of an intervention. [He] has clearly considered that one way of achieving this was to ensure that Client 1 repay the monies that he owed…
“[His] conduct was about as dishonest as it could get. [He] had engineered this loan directly for his own benefit in an attempt to rectify the firm’s finances.”
He was also found guilty of various accounts rules breaches, failing to maintain proper internal controls and failing in his duties as the COLP and COFA.
In a witness statement, Mr Aiston said: “I deeply regret the action I took and struggle to understand why I agreed to help a desperate client [Client 1] on that occasion when nearly 40 years’ practice told me not to do so.
“All I can say is that I had known the client concerned for over 10 years, trusted his statements as to repayment, when I should not even have entertained his request, and as a result I will rightly be struck from the roll.
“I did not benefit financially or in any other way, personal or through my firm.”
In striking him off, the SDT found there was no clear evidence as to Mr Aiston’s motivation but found he had shown little insight into his misconduct.
It continued: “[He] knew how much trust was placed in him and has exploited that trust.”