Solicitor put “financial gain for family” before clients

Probate: Bogus grant

A solicitor who let her daughter live rent-free in a probate property and charged another client’s estate thousands of pounds for cleaning and decorating services provided by her son has been struck off.

Michelle Mary Maclennan Hind also acted for a client who made her a beneficiary in the will without advising the client to take independent advice.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found her guilty of a long list of disciplinary offences that also included creating a bogus grant of probate, transferring £20,000 in client funds to her personal account and lying to obtain a bridging loan for a client.

Many of the offences, most of which she denied, involved dishonesty. The SDT said Ms Hind’s motivation was a mixture of covering up deficiencies, preserving her reputation and “in some cases financial gain for close family members”.

The SDT said the solicitor’s misconduct was “often planned and complex”, for example through the bogus grant of probate and by transferring property between clients so a different grant of probate could be used.

In addition to breaching her duties as a trustee and executor, the tribunal said the clients involved were “in several cases long-standing friends” who “relied upon her entirely”.

Ms Hind also made loans between clients without asking them.

“Clients were unaware of the actions taken on their behalf and the use to which their funds were put and beneficiaries were kept uninformed of their entitlements.”

In mitigation, Ms Hind said she believed she was “a good person who was compassionate and had sought to help people, including to her own detriment”. She said that she was made bankrupt in October 2017.

Ms Hind was a partner at Grant & Hind Solicitors before working, between December 2013 and November 2016 for Redferns, both based in Weymouth.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) investigated Redferns in August 2016 after complaints relating to two of Ms Hind’s conveyancing matters. The investigation revealed that Ms Hind had relied on a “bogus grant of probate” and the firm was shut down in November 2016.

The SDT found that Ms Hind had certified a document as a true copy of a grant of probate in August 2015, when no grant of probate had been issued, and allowed the false grant to be used in the management of a client’s estate.

Dismissing the solicitor’s claim that “her secretary had for some reason produced a misleading document”, the tribunal said Ms Hind “had a personal interest in using the grant and made use of it very soon after she certified it”.

Ms Hind was also found to have transferred £20,000 from client account into her personal bank account. The tribunal said her claim that the personal account was a client account was undermined partly because its name did not include the word “client”, as required by the accounts rules, and also because it was only 18 months into the SRA investigation that she made this argument.

Ms Hind admitted that her daughter and family lived in a probate property for four months and no rent was collected. The SDT said “she had preferred the interests of her family member over the interests of her client”.

The property was sold shortly after but she then failed to distribute the proceeds the beneficiaries, which included Macmillan Cancer Support. She sold another property owned by the same estate at an undervalue.

The solicitor incurred costs of £7,600 on another estate for house clearing and redecorating services provided by her son.

Given her position as a trustee, the SDT said she should at least have obtained quotes from other people to see if the fees quoted by her son were reasonable.

The will where she was a beneficiary was that of one of Ms Hind’s best friends, and the SDT rejected her contention that she had only explained some of the wording. Rather, it was clear that she had advised and taken instructions on the will.

Not only did the solicitor fail to tell the client seek independent advice, but she also continued to act when there was a conflict.

Of the 20 disciplinary offences found proven against her, Ms Hind admitted three and partially admitted a fourth – all relating to breaches of the accounts rules.

She was found to have acted dishonestly on multiple occasions, including making “inaccurate and misleading statements” when applying for a bridging loan on behalf of a client.

These included concealing the fact that the property purchase had taken place two months ago and increasing the purchase price from £201,000 to just under £270,000 to reduce the loan to value.

Ms Hind was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £54,000.

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