A solicitor who took unfair advantage of his own daughter-in-law by not completing his purchase of her flat and not telling her, and then renting it out for his own benefit, has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard that Vincent Howard O’Neil had intended his actions to help his family but decided against redeeming the mortgage on ‘Property A’ after discovering that his plan to use money from a pension fund to do so would incur a £28,000 tax liability.
Instead of becoming the flat’s legal owner, he became a licensee and rented it out. His daughter-in-law (‘Person A’ in the ruling) only discovered that the sale had not been completed when her lender continued taking mortgage payments out of her bank account.
Mr O’Neil covered the mortgage payments but kept for himself the excess he made from renting out the property over more than four years.
The solicitor, born in 1954 and admitted in 1980, was at the time a partner at Cheltenham law firm Town and Country Property Lawyers. By the hearing, he was employed by Davies and Partners Solicitors as a conveyancing manager but did hold a practising certificate.
Mr O’Neil entered into a contract in a personal capacity to purchase Property A in July 2014 from his daughter-in-law for £146,000, which he said was to help her and his son buy a new home, ‘Property B’.
It was only in late 2018 that Person A instructed separate solicitors to complete the transaction, and they served a notice to complete on Mr O’Neil. He paid £90,000 but this was £25,000 less than the amount required.
Person A reassumed control of the property and sold it in August 2019 for £170,000. There was then a dispute over how much of the proceeds Mr O’Neil should receive, which settled for £120,000.
Mr O’Neil acted through Town and Country for his son and daughter-in-law on what was meant to be their simultaneous purchase of Property B in July 2014. Their lender required that the mortgage over Property A was discharged on completion.
The law firm’s senior partner and founder, Paul Wilson, signed off on the certificate of title sent to the lender – it required this from someone unrelated to the buyers – and he told the SDT that he only did so on the assurance of Mr O’Neil that the mortgage would be discharged.
Mr Wilson said he would normally have sought written confirmation but that he had no reason to doubt Mr O’Neil, with whom he had worked for 15 years.
The SDT found that Mr O’Neil took unfair advantage of Person A and acted with a lack of integrity.
“He had used his professional position to take possession of a property and subsequently rent it out over a four-year period generating a profit for himself.”
The fact that he had potentially placed Person A in breach of a mortgage condition – because the property was not meant to be let – aggravated the misconduct.
The tribunal ruled that Mr O’Neil also acted when there was a conflict between his interests of those of his son and daughter-in-law, and failed to ensure they received independent legal advice, “which would have been even more important given that this transaction involved members of his family”.
As a result, Person A eventually found herself in a position where the prospect of litigation against her father-in-law was “a real possibility”.
Additionally, the SDT held, Mr O’Neil had acted dishonestly in not disclosing the true position to Mr Wilson.
“The crux of the issue was that [he] was entirely motivated by his own financial greed. He did not want to pay a tax liability and he did not want to lose Property A which he had agreed to purchase.
“As a result of his conduct, [he] received the rent from Property A and did not reimburse all of this to Person A.”
Deciding to strike off Mr O’Neil, the tribunal said: “Although [he] had had a previously long unblemished career, as a very experienced solicitor, he should have known that it was absolutely sacrosanct that solicitors did not take advantage of clients or dishonestly mislead a colleague for their own personal financial gain. [He] could not be trusted.”
Mr O’Neil was also ordered to pay costs of £11,100.