A criminal law solicitor who used money from a jailed client for an appeal to stabilise his firm’s “precarious financial position” has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The tribunal found that Christopher John Bentley had made a series of improper transfers totalling nearly £30,000 from client to office account, fabricated invoices after the event in an attempt to justify them, and lied about sending cheques to both the client in prison and his counsel.
The SDT said Mr Bentley’s motivation was covering wages and office overheads, as well as drawings for himself, while ensuring that the firm did not exceed its overdraft limit.
“The timing of the improper payments matched those times when the respondent needed an injection of cash into the office account,” it said.
The tribunal found that Mr Bentley, principal of Norfolk firm Cole Bentley & Co, had “deliberately delayed” returning the monies to the jailed client, ‘Mr W’, so he could use it to keep the firm afloat.
Although he had made good the shortage on client account, Mr Bentley’s misconduct was “aggravated by his proven dishonesty”.
“His misconduct was deliberate, calculated, repeated and had continued over a significant period of time. He had tried to conceal his wrongdoing by entries on client ledgers and the fabrication of invoices.”
He was admitted to the roll in 1993, and sole principal of Cole Bentley & Co from December 2018 until the firm’s closure in September 2019.
Mr W’s stepson, Mr C, complained to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that, following his conviction in 2017, Mr W had given Cole Bentley & Co £15,000 to pay for an appeal, including instructing counsel.
The appeal was abandoned in December 2017, but the law firm failed to account for the unspent fees.
Mr C asked for the money to be returned and, while Mr Bentley promised to give the matter his “urgent attention”, nothing was actually done.
The SDT found that there were three improper transfers from client to office account relating to Mr W, totalling £14,440, and three further improper transfers relating to other criminal defence clients of £14,905, making £29,345 in all.
Mr Bentley was found to have acted dishonestly in this and in the letters, enclosing cheques, he “purported” to send to Mr W in prison but the prison confirmed had not been received.
The SDT also said it did not accept that a £4,000 cheque for fees relating to Mr W’s appeal had been sent to Nick Lobbenberg QC, especially as there had been no fee note.
It said Mr Bentley had “no evidence” that the cheque had been sent, the chambers had no evidence of its receipt, and the sole practitioner knew that “work to that value had not been undertaken by counsel and the appeal had been abandoned”.
Mr Bentley had “purported to send cheques to the client and to counsel to facilitate improper use of the monies”.
He was also found to have failed to keep proper and accurate accounts, which he admitted.
Mr Bentley was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £18,800.