Solicitor who “considered herself to be the client” is struck off

SDT: Solicitor kept on charging after retainer ended

A solicitor who “considered herself to be the client” while operating under a lasting power of attorney (LPA), sending bills to herself and massively overcharging the elderly client involved, has been struck off.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Maxine Barnes paid herself almost £27,000 for work valued by a cost expert at £966.50 − an overcharge of 2,289%.

Ms Barnes, admitted in 2001, was sole director and manager of Furse Sanders, based in Cornwall. Her misconduct was motivated by “financial gain”, the SDT said.

Among the fees taken from elderly Client A’s money were £62.50 for processing a premium bond worth £25 and £500 for communicating with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in response to complaints about her conduct.

The firm charged £9.50 per item for scanning items of post into its case management system and £59 for a call to Client A to check that she was not waiting to hear back from the Ms Barnes.

When the LPA was revoked by the Office of the Public Guardian in September 2016 and the retainer ended as a result, the solicitor continued charging, this time for attempts to prove that Client A did not have capacity to revoke the LPA and discussing the matter with family members.

The tribunal said Ms Barnes did “all she could to try and disprove that Client A had capacity to instruct the revocation of the LPA”.

It went on: “She waited until she had seized control of Client A’s finances before issuing any invoices and then did not send those invoices to Client A.

“Her misconduct was planned and was a flagrant breach of the trust placed in her by her elderly and vulnerable client.”

Ms Barnes was found to have acted dishonestly by charging for work done under an LPA, knowing that it had been revoked, and withdrawing money from Client A’s account for those fees without notifying her and “in excess of what was agreed and/or fair and reasonable”.

The solicitor denied the allegation, claiming she was “doing all she could to protect Client A’s welfare” and it was “clear that Client A was not taking care of her financial affairs, and further, that there was no one else doing so”.

Ms Barnes said the SRA was suggesting she should have “washed her hands of Client A”.

On overcharging, the tribunal found that it was clear that the solicitor had “seized control of Client A’s financial affairs” in her role as attorney.

“She considered herself to be the client and had sent herself the terms of business. It followed that the respondent had, as she had admitted in her letter to the applicant, not sent any bills to Client A.”

The SDT found that, while acting for the executors of another estate, Ms Barnes had billed over £40,300, having agreed a fixed fee of £2,000 plus VAT.

She withdrew almost £38,000 from client account before administration of estate was transferred to another law firm.

Furse Saunders ceased trading in April 2018, entering a creditor’s voluntary liquidation in June 2018, before being shut down by the SRA in September that year.

The SDT found that, between April and May 2018, Ms Barnes improperly transferred money out of client account to an unregulated entity.

The SRA said Ms Barnes made 18 bank transfers from client account totalling over £608,400 to Furse Legal Services Limited, an unregulated company of which her husband was the sole director.

She said she could do this as she was the client, but the money was later returned.

The tribunal said in the four matters relied upon by the SRA, Ms Barnes was “either not the client, or not the sole client in any matter” and there was no evidence that she had sought the consent of any of the clients to the transfers.

Ms Barnes was struck off and ordered to pay costs reduced from £31,200 to £20,000 to take into account her limited means.

    Readers Comments

  • Sue Corbin says:

    A sound decision by SDT. One hopes that it will give pause to other solicitors tempted to take a similar approach to client “care”.

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