Solicitor ordered secretaries to retrospectively “witness” wills


Wills: Solicitor may have been well-intentioned but acted dishonestly

The managing director of a law firm who ordered legal secretaries and a trainee solicitor to retrospectively “witness” wills which had already been signed by clients has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

Robert Ian Cartwell, who qualified in 1996, admitted that this behaviour had become a “bit of a habit”, but said he had explained to clients that secretaries – and occasionally a trainee – would be asked to sign the documents as if they had been properly witnessed.

Mr Cartmell, managing director of two-partner Buckinghamshire firm Cartmell & Co, told the tribunal it had been his intention to “help the clients, not deceive them” and described the documents as “ostensibly valid” as they accurately reflected the clients’ wishes.

He had been open with clients, whom he visited at their homes, in telling them what he planned to do. He denied dishonesty.

The SDT heard that, after the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) received reports about what was going on, Cartmell & Co to launch a review of wills, deeds and trust instruments.

The law firm sent its findings to the regulator in August 2018, leading to the suspension and dismissal of Mr Cartmell and an investigation by the SRA.

The SRA identified nine wills and 24 deeds, dated between October 2013 and September 2015, which were not properly attested because the client had not been present when the “witness” signed the document.

Two legal secretaries told the SRA they had been asked by Mr Cartmell to add their signatures to the documents as if they had witnessed the clients’ signatures, when in fact in each case the documents had already been signed by the clients.

The SDT found that Mr Cartmell had failed to ensure that wills and trust deeds were properly executed, potentially invalidating the wills and trusts.

The solicitor may have been “well-intentioned” but his actions “would be considered dishonest by the standards of ordinary, decent people”.

The tribunal dismissed a second allegation of dishonesty and with it an allegation that Mr Cartmell had prepared a misleading statement of fact. An allegation that he had delayed registering notices of severance of a joint tenancy was also dismissed.

However, in another case, solicitor was found to have acted where there was a conflict of interest between his duties as a trustee and the interests of his clients, although he did not believe he had caused any loss.

In mitigation, he apologised to the profession, telling the tribunal that he was “astonished” that he had handled matters in the way he had.

He asked for forgiveness and for an opportunity to prove that “he had learned a very hard lesson that had affected him and his family significantly”. The solicitor said he “would love” the opportunity to continue working “in a field that he was devoted to”.

The SDT said Mr Cartmell’s motivation had been “to cut corners” in the “mistaken belief” that he was helping his clients.

The misconduct had been “deliberate, calculated and repeated on more than 30 occasions over a period in excess of two years” and the solicitor “had been in a position of responsibility towards his junior staff as well as his clients”.

He had demonstrated “some insight” but the tribunal was “not certain that the respondent fully appreciated how serious it could have been if the wills and LPAs had been invalidated as a result of his actions”.

Mr Cartmell was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £17,500.

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