Solicitor faked documents and signatures “to cover up mistakes”

Probate: Solicitor forged grant

An experienced solicitor who faked documents, including a grant of probate, and forged signatures on conveyancing forms has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The SDT said Martin Edward Burnett wanted to “cover up mistakes made in the course of his practice” and “sought to avoid having difficult conversations” with his clients and law firm.

“In that sense he had been reactive to events, but his subsequent actions had been planned. He had produced forms, created letters and carried on the deception through correspondence.

“He had breached a position of trust as an executor of a will, and breached the trust placed in him by clients as well as his employers.”

The tribunal said clients of Mr Burnett had “clearly suffered distress and anxiety” and the “potential for very significant loss was considerable” given that the most serious misconduct related to property and probate matters.

The SDT said there were no mitigating factors and the solicitor had not “co-operated with the SRA” or “engaged with the tribunal” at any stage in the proceedings.

Mr Burnett was born in 1969 and qualified in 2003. He worked as a solicitor at BPK, a law firm based in Carlisle, from June 2007 to January 2016.

At that point, the firm’s compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) “discovered a number of issues” with his work. The firm alerted the SRA, which launched an investigation.

Mr Burnett had been sole executor of a Mr PF’s will and was acting in the disposal of his property in Carlisle, which included £45,800 held in a Halifax Building Society account.

The SDT heard that Mr Burnett provided the Halifax with a “purported grant” of probate, stamped as a “true copy of the original” by his law firm.

The account was successfully closed a week later and the money sent to Mr PF’s residuary beneficiary, his nephew.

A director of BPK later told the SRA that Mr Burnett had “readily admitted he forged the grant of probate”, to allow the transaction to proceed “when he had slept on his oars and not acted quickly enough” to obtain the grant.

The SDT said these actions were dishonest.

BPK’s COLP told the SRA that Mr Burnett had made further admissions about a property in Wigton, Cumbria, where the solicitor was acting for the purchaser.

The tribunal found that Mr Burnett had deliberately altered the transaction date on a TR2 form and forged the signatures of his client and a witness on a TR1 form. This too was dishonest.

Although he did not admit any of the allegations made against him by the SRA, BPK’s COLP told the SRA that the solicitor admitted that he had changed the date of one form and forged the signatures on the other.

In a further case Mr Burnett was found to have forged the signatures of two trustees on a DS1 form, to discharge a charge in the trust’s favour over a client’s property.

In this case, he was acting for both buyer and seller and for the NatWest Bank, which required a first charge. Again, dishonesty was found.

Mr Burnett was also found to have broken the rules by failing to disclose information to the lender, failing to act in the lender client’s best interests and failing to provide it with a proper standard of service.

Further rules had been broken by his decision by his decision to act for the seller, buyer and lender where there was a conflict of interest.

He was found to have provided misleading information to another lender client by falsely claiming that a purchaser, a relative of Mr Burnett, had received a loan. As well as being struck off, he was ordered to pay £10,500 in costs.

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