A solicitor who practised unauthorised and handled reserved probate work for a company owned by her non-solicitor son after her firm closed has been suspended for three months.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) received 22 complaints about Susan Lebreton-Towell’s practising arrangements in little over two years.
In an agreed outcome with the solicitor, the SRA said she charged “significant sums of money for legal work, at legal rates in accordance with charging clauses in wills, but without being within an authorised environment”.
As a solicitor “of long experience”, she should have been familiar with the practising rules. Instead, she took charging clauses in wills “as, in effect, ousting such requirements”.
The SRA said Ms Lebreton-Towell, admitted in 1994, was sole principal of Lebreton-Towell Solicitors from 1998 to December 2016, when the firm closed.
LT Law Ltd, a new company, was formed just before then, with her son as sole director and shareholder.
Ms Lebreton-Towell, who was not authorised by the SRA, acted as a consultant to LT Law from “an unknown date” until August 2021. Despite the regulator issuing two production notices, in 2020 and 2021, the solicitor refused to confirm when she started consulting for LT.
The SRA said it investigated a sample of the 22 complaints it received. Among them was the case of Mr K, who died in December 2017, with Ms Lebreton-Towell appointed as executrix in her capacity as solicitor.
On behalf of Mr K’s children, a law firm complained to her in March 2018 that it had taken her three months to produce a will, by which time Mr K had been buried, against his instructions in the will. Ms Lebreton-Towell said it was “in accordance with a family member’s instructions”.
When a new executor took over in May 2019, and agreed to pay her costs, LT Law sent an invoice for almost £50,000, including her time at £200 per hour and her non-admitted son’s at £150 per hour.
Among the time charged at “legal rates” was 12 hours the solicitor spent on house clearance and eight hours attending an auction.
In a complaint relating to the estate of Ms C, who died in December 2017, the solicitor was co-executrix. She failed to provide terms and conditions to her co-executrix, with LT Law saying she was “absent”.
This resulted in HM Revenue & Customs fining the estate for non-returns, although the penalties were later cancelled.
The law firm acting for her co-executrix complained to the SRA about non-communication from Ms Lebreton-Towell, and, almost two years after Ms C died, said “nothing seemed to have happened” to the estate.
She responded in November 2020, stating that “a lot of work had been done” and she was owed money.
When Mr P died in January 2019, Ms Lebreton-Towell was a joint executrix with two other people. She sent a letter saying LT Law would carry out the work for an estimated fee of £2,500.
The court made the grant of probate to her and two beneficiaries. Ms Lebreton-Towell later said she would only sign off on the documentation when she had been paid and sent an invoice for almost £4,900, stating that she was “regulated by the SRA” and giving a solicitor’s SRA number.
She admitted practising as a solicitor and conducting a reserved legal activity when not authorised, acting with a lack of integrity in the process.
In non-agreed mitigation, Ms Lebreton-Towell said she “genuinely, and honestly believed” she was entitled to practise as she did, accepting “with the benefit of hindsight” that she broke the rules.
The SRA said that cases where solicitors had been struck off for practising without authorisation contained an element of dishonesty, which was not present in this case.
However, because her misconduct was over “a long period of time”, a financial penalty would not be appropriate.
Approving the suspension, the SDT said the solicitor had failed to act in her clients’ best interests or protect their monies and assets, and had also failed to act with integrity.
“The tribunal determined there was a need to protect both the public and the reputation of the profession from future harm by Ms Lebreton-Towell, but that neither the protection of the public or the reputation of the profession justified striking her off the roll of solicitors.
“The tribunal considered that a short suspension from practice was an appropriate and proportionate sanction.”
She was suspended for three months and ordered to pay costs of £16,000.