A solicitor who “dipped into” a divorce client’s money, repeatedly lied about it and warned her not to complain to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Ellen Yee-man Windsor sought to “obfuscate and conceal” the true position regarding the client’s £30,000 by maintaining that she had a loan agreement.
The SDT found that Ms Windsor, a “distant relative” of the client ‘CG’, warned her that if she escalated her complaint to the SRA about the money not being returned, there may be “far-reaching implications in various ways”.
The solicitor went on: “Any enquiries by the authority over the issues will take time and generate complications.
“It may reduce, hinder or destroy the prospects of an expeditious settlement and payments to you.”
The tribunal said this was a “wholly improper statement to make”.
Ms Windsor followed this by two more improper statements, warning the client that if the “complaint channel” was pursued, the solicitor “may have no option but to contest the process and thus prolong the matter further”.
When CG went ahead with a complaint to LeO, Ms Windsor said she had been advised by her professional indemnity insurer that “jurisdiction and validity of the complaint to the ombudsman will be disputed.”
The solicitor, admitted in 1988, was principal of Ellen Windsor Solicitors in Warwickshire. CG complained to the SRA about her in January 2016.
The law firm ceased trading in May 2016, before the SRA’s investigation was finished.
CG complained that Ms Windsor, who acted for her in divorce proceedings, had received £30,000 from her, to be transferred to her former husband’s solicitors, when the divorce was settled.
In the event, the settlement was funded from the sale proceeds of CG’s property, but Ms Windsor failed to return the £30,000 “despite multiple requests”. By the time of her complaint to the SRA, Ms Windsor had refunded £8,000, having used the money to fund her firm, including paying herself drawings.
Following the complaint, Ms Windsor repaid a further £2,000. The remaining £20,000 plus interest was only returned to CG at the end of 2016, after LeO had become involved.
Ms Windsor denied all the allegations against her. The tribunal said the solicitor accepted that she “did not operate a client account” and instead held the money in various personal accounts.
The SDT agreed with the SRA that she had “dipped into client funds for the firm’s or her own purposes”, warning that a solicitor “may not unilaterally choose not to operate a client account”.
It disagreed with Ms Windsor that the £30,000 was a loan to the law firm, with no evidence of any agreement on the terms of the loan or of independent legal advice being taken.
The tribunal also found that she made “false or misleading statements” to CG and the solicitors acting for her ex-husband, and attempted to discourage her client from complaining to LeO.
Ms Windsor, who was found to have acted without integrity and dishonestly, argued in mitigation that she had medical problems at the time. The tribunal said she had produced no evidence of this.
She also pointed out that CG had suffered no loss – “in fact she had received a favourable rate of interest on the client monies” – and had discounted her legal fees for the work, about which there had been no complaint.
The SDT found that Ms Windsor had “subordinated the interests of her client to her own”.
“The dishonesty included such fundamentally dishonest conduct as misappropriation, and comprised several acts over an extended period of time, such that the tribunal did not consider there to be any plausible exceptional circumstances taking into account the nature, scope and extent of the dishonest conduct found proved.”
Ms Windsor was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £33,700.