A solicitor who charged a client’s estate fees of over £9,000 during a period of “complete inactivity” has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that Peter Hobson Brothwell also misled the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over the size of the estate to reduce benefits repayments.
Mr Brothwell, sole executor and residual beneficiary of the estate, charged just over £24,000 in fees over an eight-year period following the death of ‘GGF’ in 2011.
A costs expert who gave evidence for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) estimated that this amounted to 74% of the value of the estate, which he calculated had been overcharged by £13,100.
In particular the expert said that nine invoices were raised between March 2017 and July 2019, a period of “complete inactivity” at the law firm “without any correspondence either being sent or received and without any indication at all that work had been undertaken on the file”.
Mr Brothwell told the tribunal that the amounts were “not excessive” and that GGF’s file required “normal monthly administration, accounting and file review, although no note was necessarily recorded on the file as the matter was ongoing”.
The tribunal heard that the solicitor, admitted in 1974, was sole principal of PH Brothwell in Folkestone, Kent.
An accountant’s report alerted the SRA, which began an investigation in March 2020, and shut down the law firm two months later.
The tribunal said Mr Brothwell first prepared GGF’s will in 1999, which she changed in 2002 after she had “fallen out with her relatives”, making the solicitor her sole executor and main beneficiary.
“She also gave a lifetime gift to the respondent of £15,667.87 which he accepted on the basis that it would be held at the firm and if for any reason she needed any of the money she need only ask.”
GGF died in February 2011 and probate was granted in May that year. The Department for Work and Pensions claimed recovery against the estate for the state benefits overpaid to GGF prior to her death.
The tribunal said correspondence with the DWP showed that Mr Bothwell had advised that the assets of the estate were just over £33,800.
The DWP told the solicitor that “we strongly advise you not to distribute the estate” and indicated it was owed £17,300. Nevertheless, Mr Bothwell went ahead with distributions of £1,000 and £500 in 2012, saying he did it to comply with GGF’s wishes.
The solicitor wrote to the DWP in 2015 indicating that further legal costs had been incurred and enclosing accounts which said the estate had a £9,100 deficit and was insolvent.
As a result, the DWP settled its claim for £3,500, even though at that stage there was over £13,300 in GGF’s client account, not to mention an insurance payment of over £3,000 for stolen jewellery that Mr Brothwell had paid into his personal bank account and only transferred to the client account in 2019.
The tribunal said the solicitor was not a “persuasive witness” and his answers “lacked detail and were muddled”. He appeared “unable or unwilling” to answer direct questions.
“He was resolute in his evidence that he had not overcharged the estate but was not able to provide a coherent and compelling account explaining or justifying the fees he had charged.”
The SDT found his actions dishonest and said: “The sums involved were not huge, but they represented a significant and high percentage of the value of a modest estate and the harm was nevertheless real.”
His motivation was “personal financial gain”, while his role as executor, trustee and residuary beneficiary placed Mr Brothwell in a position of “heightened trust”.
He had a clean record up until now and had “belatedly taken steps to make good the £3,400 due to the DWP in respect of the insurance money received for the stolen jewellery”.
Though the allegations arose out of a single administration in long career, “there were a multitude of failures in that single administration”.
Mr Brothwell was struck off and ordered to pay £25,000 in costs.