An experienced solicitor who preyed on vulnerable clients has been struck off for writing wills that left him and his family significant legacies.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that, while a partner at Brighton firm Sussex Law Ltd, Jonathan Leslie Horner had either failed to recommend independent advice or suggested advice was given by a secretary on 10 occasions in relation to nine clients between 2011 and 2016.
The SDT said he had “massively damaged the reputation of the profession by preying on vulnerable clients and abusing his position”.
It identified a “worrying pattern of behaviour”. The tribunal explained: “Each individual was vulnerable. They had few or no surviving relatives. The respondent had befriended them often paying visits out of office hours for no apparent or ostensible professional reason.
“There were no independent witnesses or extraneous evidence as to their prior testamentary wishes. Each of the clients had left legacies to the respondent, ostensibly of their own volition.
“Some received limited legal advice post execution of their wills while others had received no advice at all. When in some cases advice was given, it was done on several occasions by a former close colleague of the respondent who was not independent…
“Their careers had been inextricably linked and progressed on a very close footing.”
The solicitor, who at the time of the hearing was attempting to build a business as an electrician, told the tribunal that the secretary, who had also worked with him at his previous firm, had provided sufficiently independent advice on three occasions.
He argued that independent advice did not have to be from a qualified lawyer.
In some cases, telling clients they needed independent advice was done retrospectively. The tribunal rejected Mr Horner’s submission that this was satisfactory and found the secretary’s advice was not adequately independent. Independent advice was “essential” in these circumstances.
Solicitors’ conduct rules require that where a client proposes “significant” – that is, anything more than token relative to the size of the estate – gifts that benefit the lawyer, a member of their family or an employee, independent advice must be taken.
A Law Society practice note dated 2014 said the advice should be given by someone “completely unconnected with your firm”.
The 10 legacies in question, one of which was also in favour of the secretary’s family, included two clients whose capacity was in doubt – one because her previous solicitor and a doctor said she was not in a fit state to provide instructions. In that case, the client left Mr Horner her entire estate.
The largest legacy was £100,000 and most were £20,000 or less, with the smallest £2,000. Beneficiaries included the solicitor’s children and girlfriend/life partner.
Over the course of more than a decade as a solicitor, he said he had acted in the preparation of between 3,500 and 4,000 wills.
The misconduct was reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority by the firm’s co-director and compliance officer for legal practice. She claimed she had been offered an inducement not to report the matter to the regulator.
However, finding all the allegations proved and that Mr Horner had acted dishonestly in relation to five of the clients. the tribunal concluded that he was motivated by financial gain.
The solicitor could either have ceased acting or simply prepared the wills without the inclusion of legacies to himself or his family.
In relation to one client, it found the solicitor’s “moral compass” had failed and the public would be “appalled” by the circumstances.
In relation to the client that left the solicitor £100,000, the tribunal said it was satisfied the solicitor’s conduct “in light of his knowledge of the situation would be considered thoroughly dishonest by the standards of ordinary decent people”.
Striking off Mr Horner, the tribunal said he had “taken advantage of clients who were vulnerable and he knew or ought reasonably to have known that his conduct was a fundamental breach of his obligations”.
His lack of insight into the extent of his misconduct was “astonishing and disturbing in equal measure”.
Though Mr Horner said he had debts of £144,000, the tribunal ordered that he pay costs of £56,381.