Solicitor struck off for taking advantage of elderly client

Will: Improper for solicitor to draft

A solicitor who attempted to sell an elderly client’s house to her own civil partner at an undervalue, and was the sole beneficiary of the client’s will that she drafted, has been struck off.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) also found that Julia Cooper misled the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in claiming that the woman, ‘Ms S’, was not her client.

Ms Cooper, who qualified in 1993, had been a sole practitioner since 1997, operating in East London as J Cooper Solicitors.

She was first instructed by Ms S in 2010 to obtain probate over her ex-husband’s estate, the major asset of which was a “substantial but dilapidated” house. Ms S was not of substantial means and lived alone in a council flat.

The SDT heard that, in September 2011, unbeknown to Ms Cooper, Ms S purportedly entered into an agreement to sell the property to a ‘Mr P’ for £230,000.

However, nearly a year later, Ms Cooper drafted, witnessed and “stamped” a legal agreement (called the S-G agreement) to sell the property instead to ‘G’, her civil partner, for £240,000.

The agreement provided that Ms S would have to pay G damages of £20,000 if the property was not transferred to him for whatever reason, along with interest of 20% above base when repaying the £20,000 deposit.

It also declared that both parties had been advised to take, and had taken, independent legal advice, but this turned out not to be true.

Probate was finally obtained in 2014, when a valuation obtained by Ms Cooper said the property was worth £450,000. In the following months, the solicitor helped both Ms S and G instruct solicitors to transfer the house to G for £200,000.

In March 2015, Ms Cooper’s civil partnership with G was dissolved. Soon after, G’s solicitors, Attwells, withdrew from acting because they would not undertake transactions that involved a pre-sale agreement for a below-market-value purchase.

Meanwhile, from late 2014 until 2019, Ms Cooper engaged in correspondence with solicitors for Mr P and the court to dispute Mr P’s claim over the alleged 2011 agreement. She asserted that the price supposedly agreed was a “considerable” undervalue and that Ms S was elderly and vulnerable.

In 2019, after Mr P obtained a “favourable” order, Ms Cooper funded separate solicitors to act for Ms S because of concerns about her involvement.

Ms Cooper also corresponded with the local authority on Ms S’s behalf for several years, mainly in a bid to get the property back into use and resist a compulsory purchase order.

In 2020, the solicitor drafted a new will for Ms S – witnessed by friends of Ms Cooper – that named her as the sole executor and beneficiary. Ms S died in January 2021.

In her defence, Ms Cooper insisted that she had encouraged G to incur the expense and inconvenience of trying to buy the property purely because they were in a bitter child contact dispute at the time. She said she would not have benefited from any sale.

She characterised the S-G agreement as an option to purchase and said the terms were not onerous.

She also insisted to the SRA and tribunal that Ms S was only her client in relation to the probate, saying she advised on the S-G agreement as a friend.

Though admitting she had referred to Ms S as her client in correspondence, Ms Cooper said the fact she had not opened a file or been paid showed she was not.

On the will, she said it had been drafted during the first Covid lockdown, meaning it had been difficult to get other solicitors involved.

The SDT concluded that Ms S was Ms Cooper’s client. Ms S was relying on the advice she received from Ms Cooper in her capacity as a solicitor, notwithstanding that a friendship had developed. It was clear that Ms Cooper was acting as a solicitor and referred to Ms S as her client on “numerous occasions”.

The evidence also contradicted Ms Cooper’s claim that she never had any desire to obtain an interest in the property.

Further, the terms of the S-G agreement were onerous and her argument that it was not potentially disadvantageous because an onerous contract would not have been enforceable in court was “astonishing”.

Similarly, Ms Cooper’s evidence that the will was not a legal matter – rather a statement of wishes – and was drafted as a temporary document during lockdown was “incredible”.

The SDT found her in breach of multiple rules in taking unfair advantage of her client over the property, and that she had been dishonest in doing so.

She had known it was “improper” to draft the will as the sole beneficiary and her behaviour was not justified by the pandemic. She had lacked integrity and acted when there was a conflict of interest, the tribunal said.

In mitigation, Ms Cooper’s counsel argued that the misconduct stemmed from the sole issue of the house sale and that her motivation had been a “misguided sense of support and friendship”.

The SDT disagreed, finding her motivation was in fact financial gain. She had acted “in flagrant breach of the trust placed in her by her elderly client” and had “sought to conceal her conduct by making allegations against her former civil partner”.

“[Ms Cooper] had continuously and repeatedly failed to conduct herself with the standards of probity and integrity expected of a solicitor,” the tribunal concluded, and said striking her off was “the only appropriate and proportionate sanction”.

Ms Cooper was also ordered to pay costs of £45,000.

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