Solicitor who used client account like a “piggy bank” is struck off

SDT: Misconduct was deliberate, calculated and repeated

A solicitor who plundered her client account to meet her personal financial obligations and her ex-partner’s car debts has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The SDT said in giving references such as ‘Range Rover’ and ‘Salary’ to her “repeated withdrawals” from client account, Rebecca Elliott made it clear that there was no underlying legal transaction in each case.

It was “more likely than not” that the withdrawals were improper as it was “evident on the documentary evidence that the respondent was using the client account as a ‘piggy bank’”.

The tribunal said Ms Elliott, principal of Elliotts in Southampton, borrowed money from her mother so she could take a misleading screenshot of her client account and send it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The money was almost immediately transferred back.

She denied dishonesty, arguing that she had “panicked and wanted to buy some time to resolve the issue”.

However, the tribunal considered that her conduct was “intentional, predicated on an (admitted) intention to create a false impression, was calculated, repeated and not borne out of panic”.

She had shown a “flagrant disregard for the sacrosanct nature of the client account” and was responsible for “dishonest engagement” with the SRA.

The tribunal heard that Ms Elliott, admitted in 2000, worked mainly on probate, wills and conveyancing matters.

The SRA received a claim on its compensation fund relating to her firm in August 2019, along with a report from the solicitors involved.

The regulator launched an investigation in January 2020 and closed down the firm in March.

The tribunal found that Ms Elliott made improper withdrawals from client account of a minimum of £8,500 between September 2017 and January 2020; in the final 12 months, she transferred nearly £50,000 in numerous transactions from client account to accounts connected with her.

These include the law firm’s office account, Ms Elliott’s personal account and the account of a barbershop, which she told the tribunal she jointly owned with her ex-partner.

Ms Elliott described her ex-partner as a client who had been pursued for a car debt by Range Rover and had to make a payment every month.

Transfers made out of client account which were referenced as costs were not supported by a bill or invoice. “They were round figures which appeared to the tribunal to have been arrived at by the respondent absent any justification as to entitlement of the same.”

The tribunal also found Ms Elliott had failed to pay on to HM Revenue & Customs £15,000 in stamp duty owed by two clients.

The SDT said it had “no difficulty” in finding that using the monies to meet her personal financial obligations were dishonest.

Further, her firm’s professional indemnity insurance expired on 30 September 2019 and Ms Elliott did not renew it or close the firm.

She cited ill health, the breakdown of a long-term relationship and unsupportive working conditions while employed by another firm “to explain her state of mind at the material time”, the SDT recorded.

The tribunal concluded that Ms Elliott’s misconduct was “deliberate, calculated and repeated” over a “protracted period of time”, and the solicitor showed a “total lack of insight and/or remorse”.

She was struck off and ordered to pay costs of £16,500.

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