A solicitor who used money inherited by a jailed client to pay off his law firm’s overdraft has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The tribunal also dismissed as “nonsensical” Geoffrey Rushton’s attempt to blame a disgruntled former employee for what happened.
It heard that Mr Rushton “sought to conceal matters by telling lies to his client” − blaming “fictitious” bank charges and claiming that “all his accounts had been frozen” pending various official investigations.
Finding that Mr Rushton had acted dishonestly, the SDT said his misconduct was “deliberate, calculated and repeated” and Client A was “a vulnerable person by reason of his status as a serving prisoner”.
Mr Rushton, admitted in 2006, was the sole owner and director of Rushton Legal Services, based in Staffordshire, which stared trading in January 2016.
Client A was in prison when his mother died in August 2016, and her only surviving relative. He instructed Mr Rushton to “assist him in moving monies from his mother’s account to his account”.
The tribunal found that the solicitor told the Lloyds Bereavement Unit to pay the money from the mother’s estate into his firm’s business current account, which was overdrawn by over £2,200.
A CHAPS transfer of £37,500 was made, leaving Rushton Legal Services almost £35,300 in credit.
Mr Rushton used a further £225 of Client A’s money to renew his overdraft facility. He followed this up by making two transfers, of £5,000 and £2,000, from the office account to his personal account.
The tribunal said he knew that these were transfers from client funds and “there was no billing to justify the transfers and no explanation or notification was provided to the client”.
The solicitor was found to have “improperly benefited” from holding client money in the firm’s office account and made improper withdrawals.
Mr Rushton sent a breakdown of charges to Client A in April 2017, totalling over £3,300, and including a sum of £1,875 described as “bank interest for deposit and transfer”. The SDT said he had not incurred such a cost and the reference to bank charges was “fictitious”.
The same month he sent a letter to Client A saying his firm’s bank accounts had been frozen “due to an accounting audit” and the following month a further letter saying all his accounts had been frozen pending investigation by the “police, HMRC and Legal Aid Agency”.
He also claimed the SRA had shut down his firm and put restrictions on his practising certificate – neither was true.
The tribunal said it could only describe these letters as a “series of lies”. It rejected as “fanciful and entirely unsupported by any evidence” later suggestions the letters were the work of a former employee who had taken files and computers when they left.
“The notion that a disgruntled former employee would steal files, forge headed notepaper and write false letters to a client for no apparent reason was nonsensical.”
Mr Rushton “knew that his client was a serving prisoner who would find it harder to verify, and therefore challenge, the information contained in these letters than someone who was not”.
The SDT found that the solicitor also sent a power of attorney to Client A to sign in August 2016, knowing it would be invalid because he had pre-signed it as the witness.
Client A complained to the SRA, which launched an investigation. Mr Rushton was found not to have co-operated with the SRA and to have failed to respond to statutory production notices.
The solicitor did not attend the hearing and failed to provide any mitigation. The SDT said it was “unable to identify any mitigating factors”.
He was struck off and ordered to pay £21,800 in costs.