Solicitor and paralegal son fined over improper client account withdrawals

SDT: Solicitor elided professional duties with friendship

The former owner of a Wirral law firm has been fined and his paralegal son banned from working for law firms for making improper withdrawals from an elderly man’s client and personal bank accounts.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard that the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) launched an investigation following concerns over Robert Bingham’s role as attorney for Client A and two gifts which he accepted, totalling £100,000.

Mr Bingham, born in 1951, was admitted in 1984 and the principal of Binghams Solicitors from 2003 until the end of 2018. He now works as a consultant for the firm, which has four offices on the Wirral and in Liverpool.

His son Ryan was a paralegal at the firm at the relevant time but no longer works in the legal profession.

The tribunal heard that Mr Bingham became sole attorney for Client A in 2007, under an enduring power of attorney (EPA), and in 2011 the sole executor and main beneficiary of Client A’s will, which was prepared by a different law firm.

Client A made two gifts of £50,000 each to Mr Bingham in 2012 and 2014, having received independent legal advice on each occasion.

In an agreed outcome with the former sole practitioner, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) described the first gift as “unprompted”, while the second came about “following a visit” from Mr Bingham and his son at a time when the firm was in financial difficulties.

The SRA said Mr Bingham told Client A that he had “a large tax bill” of £53,000 to pay and the client said he would be “happy to help” with a gift “to the tune of £40,000”.

The regulator said there was nothing on the file “to suggest how £40,000 became £50,000”, although Mr Bingham later said that were “other things to pay” and “although the attendance note does say £40,000” the client “knows it was £50,000”.

The SRA received a report raising concerns about Mr Bingham’s role as attorney from a safeguarding officer at the OPG in October 2018, followed by a further report raising concerns about the gifts. The SRA responded by launching an investigation.

Mr Bingham admitted making 13 withdrawals from Client A’s client account between May 2016 and March 2018, totalling £103,650, without written authority and in one case “without forwarding a copy of the purported bill”.

The EPA was registered in August 2018 when Client A was deemed to lack mental capacity.

Following the OPG investigation, Mr Bingham “conducted affairs purportedly relating to Client A through the latter’s personal bank account, as opposed to through the firm’s client account as he had previously done”.

Between April and July 2019, 76 withdrawals totalling £4,394 were made from Client A’s personal bank account, of which receipts for only £914 were produced.

Mr Bingham admitted that these withdrawals were made “other than in the proper exercise of his powers” under the EPA.

Ryan Bingham admitted a similar offence, making the withdrawals from Client A’s personal account “in circumstances where he was not entitled to”.

They used the client’s bank card but said it was not for their own personal use, apart from one “honest mistake” by Ryan when he used it to purchase a gift for his mother-in-law for £129.

Ryan Bingham said he had a “very close” relationship with Client A and “spent a lot of time” with him, sometimes visiting him several times a day, even though it was a 26-mile round trip.

The SRA said the total shortage on client account of over £111,000 had been replaced.

Mr Bingham said in mitigation that he had become close friends with Client A before their professional relationship began in 2002.

By 2007, Client A’s health was in decline and on medical advice decided to appoint an attorney.

Client A lost his closest relative in 2011 and had described the solicitor as “his most reliable and dearest friend”. Mr Bingham said his “lapse” in the proper standard of service had “no real consequence” for Client A.

After the OPG concluded its investigation, he added, it reappointed him as Client A’s deputy.

However, the SDT said that, although the money transferred from client account had been replaced, Mr Bingham had ended up “eliding his professional duties to Client A with his friendship and familiarity with Client A” and the case “represented the dangers of a solicitor falling foul of own interest conflicts.”

He was fined £7,600 and his son was banned from working for law firms. They were ordered to pay £27,000 in costs on a joint and several basis.

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