Solicitor used £230,000 of client money to prop up firm

SDT: Misconduct repeated over four years

A solicitor who shuffled around client account money to prop up his firm – leaving a hole of at least £230,000 and charities out of money bequeathed to them – has been struck off.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Brian Sarney did not even tell one charity, which was not named, that it was entitled to up to £185,000 under the will of a deceased client, for whom he was the sole executor.

He also used money from property transactions handled on behalf of an employee to pay that staff member’s salary.

The tribunal heard that the sole practitioner, admitted in 1977, was principal of Roger Dean & Co, based in Biggin Hill, Kent. The firm operated a separate office nearby in Orpington under the trading name of McNair Wilson Innes & Co.

A qualified report from the law firm’s accountant triggered an investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The regulator closed Roger Dean & Co in January this year.

The SRA’s investigation officer “could not determine the full extent of the firm’s liabilities to clients due to the unreliability of the firm’s books of account”, but there was a minimum client cash shortage of £232,300 by August 2021.

Most of the shortage, just over £200,400 was “caused by improper payments and inter-ledger transfers made from two probate matters relating to the estates of Client A and Client B”, for which the Mr Sarney was the sole executor.

Under Client A’s will, the estate was bequeathed to eight beneficiaries in equal shares, five of whom were relatives, the rest charities.

Five improper transfers were made between 2017 and 2021 transferred to unrelated client matters. The largest was a £50,000 loan to another client that was never repaid, while two paid the stamp duty land tax on other files.

An outstanding balance of over £185,000 was due to the residuary beneficiary of Client B’s estate, a charity. But seven improper payments totalling £135,000 were made from this between 2018 and 2021, two to beneficiaries of Client A and four for other stamp duty payments.

Mr Sarney told the SRA that he had used the money to fund external payments where there was a need for expediency, but that “on reflection” it was not the right thing to do.

Asked by the SRA if he was dishonest, he said: “I wouldn’t say I’m dishonest. I think I’ve struggled to keep the practice afloat at times. But as I say, the intention has always been to pay the money back and it will be paid back at some point.” He had not done so by the time of the intervention.

Mr Sarney admitted providing “untrue and misleading information” to the beneficiaries.

Client C was actually an employee of Roger Dean & Co who instructed it in connection with multiple property transactions, all of which were recorded in one ledger.

Mr Sarney improperly transferred a total of £55,500 from it, half of which went on paying Client C his own salary without him knowing, and £20,000 on paying the firm’s tax bill. Mr Sarney said the firm had cash flow difficulties at the time.

Some of the shortfall on Client C’s ledger was reduced by an improper payment from Client B’s.

Mr Sarney admitted the misconduct, although only accepted he had been dishonest at the start of his disciplinary hearing, where he represented himself.

The SDT said his dishonesty was “repeated over a four-year period” and was “exacerbated by the fact that Mr Sarney failed to notify a residual beneficiary of its entitlement at all, thereby depriving it of the legacy properly due to it”.

The sole practitioner told the tribunal he had his sold property in April this year and given the balance to the SRA to address the shortfall. The tribunal did not say whether clients or charities would now lose out.

Mr Sarney was struck off the roll and ordered to pay £21,200 in costs.

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