A solicitor who took almost £1m from the estates of dead clients has been jailed for six years.
Edgar Stephen George Thomas charged hugely inflated fees to deal with probate and other issues following death – in one case charging 50 times the estimated fee – and pocketed the cash.
In most of the cases, he had known the families involved for many years, having acted as their solicitor in the past.
In 2016 he was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after it found he had abused his position of trust in a “blatant and despicable” way and he was subsequently declared bankrupt.
The 58-year-old admitted 23 counts of fraud by abuse of position and theft at Swansea Crown Court.
Jim Davies, prosecuting, said the offences took place over a seven-year period while Mr Thomas ran his own firm Steve Thomas & Co, which operated from his home address in Pembrokeshire.
The total amount he stole over that period was £988,315.
The court heard Mr Thomas had worked at the Haverfordwest law firm of Eaton-Evans & Morris for many years without complaint – becoming a partner – before striking out on his own and starting in business in 2005.
However, during a routine audit of his accounts by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in 2011, concerns were raised and a “non-urgent” investigation was launched into the way he was levying fees on clients.
The court heard that, due to an “administrative error” at the SRA, the resulting report was not acted upon until 2014 when a new investigation was ordered into Mr Thomas’s work. This fact was not included in the tribunal’s ruling.
That investigation, and the subsequent police inquiry, discovered that Mr Thomas had been charging “grossly” inflated fees for carrying out work on the estates of 16 clients – often with little or no actual legal work having been done.
Mr Thomas also refused to provide proper invoices or details of charges and was evasive when people tried to chase up figures or make inquiries about what was happening to the estates of their loved ones.
The court heard that Mr Thomas also stole £50,000 from a company while acting for it in an acquisition.
In most of the cases, the victims of the fraud have been compensated for their losses by the SRA.
Barrister Ian Ibrahim, for Mr Thomas, said his client’s firm had not been fraudulent from the start.
He said the overheads and costs associated with running his own business had “overwhelmed” the defendant and the money he had taken from the estates had gone into keeping the company going rather than in funding a lavish lifestyle.
The barrister said his client had been very highly respected in the Haverfordwest community and “his fall from a very high station in life has been dramatic”.
Mr Ibrahim added: “He wishes to apologise to all those who have been hurt by his actions and have been caused anxiety and pain.”
Judge Keith Thomas told the defendant those who practise law must do so with the highest levels of honesty and integrity and he said the defendant had abused the trust people placed in him.
In addition to the jail sentence, further action under the Proceeds of Crime Act will follow.