A sole practitioner who was the victim of fraudsters and raided his clients’ money to pay them off, has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
John Randall Slade claimed he had been threatened by the fraudsters.
Mr Slade, who was born in 1940 and admitted as a solicitor in 1969, practised in the firm of JR Slade.
He admitted five allegations relating to breaches of the accounts rules and the SRA Principles. Breaches included dishonestly using client funds for his own benefit; failing to keep accounting records properly written up; and failing to promptly remedy rule breaches.
He claimed he became involved with fraudsters “masquerading as Google”, after receiving an unsolicited telephone call from a company offering to advertise his business on the internet with a view to increasing his client base.
Between 10 December 2013 and 19 May 2014 Mr Slade made withdrawals and transfers from client account totalling £228,500. In a similar period he made credit transactions totalling £185,840 in order to replace the improperly withdrawn funds.
Shortly before the Solicitors Regulation Authority intervened in the firm in October 2014, its forensic investigations officer recorded there was a shortage in client account of £42,660, although Mr Slade had in fact paid the money back the previous day.
In a statement to the tribunal, Mr Slade claimed he had been “completely caught up in what turned out to be a scam without being able to break out of the vicious cycle that I found myself in.”
He explained that he had made payments for advertising, website production and domain name purchases, and an initial up-front payment of £6,000-£7,000.
The tribunal recorded: “Having made the initial payment, the respondent was then informed that he had subscribed to their services and was required to pay regular instalments. He would receive demands for cash over the telephone and a representative of DB [the company] would attend his home to collect the money.
“The respondent stated that he had been taken in by the individuals representing DB; however, he explained that he had also suffered from injury and ill health, and that had affected his judgement.”
Mr Slade had paid £50,000 of his own money and continued to do so as he was told that his websites could be sold in part or whole for a profit. He signed a contract for the sale of his website for £428,000, but it did not complete, with the company telling him there had been complications surrounding the copyright.
Mr Slade was asked to make further payments, which he did. When he ran out of personal funds, he dipped into client account.
The former solicitor admitted he had been “tempted by the rewards of the contract” but claimed he was threatened by the fraudsters, saying that he was told that if he did not pay up in full “then there would be immediate repercussions and court action which made me fear for my safety and reputation”.
In mitigation, he detailed his embarrassment at being “sucked in by this proposal that was, with hindsight too good to be true”.
He continued: “I deeply regret the disservice to my clients and the way my actions reflect on the profession which I have held so dear for my entire working life… I am anguished that this should be the sorry note upon which my 45 years of practice as a solicitor has ended. Prior to this, my professional record was… exemplary.”
The tribunal acknowledged that Mr Slade was the victim of fraud, but said: “Whilst he was no doubt being pressured into paying over sums of money, the circumstances in which the money was taken and paid did not amount to duress in law or in fact, and did not amount to exceptional circumstances.”
It said: “The respondent was an experienced solicitor, who was fully aware of his duties and obligations in relation to his clients’ monies… In acting in the way that he did, [he] had caused harm to the trust the public places in the profession and the provision of legal services.”
Further: “His dishonest conduct was deliberate, calculated and repeated, and was in material breach of his obligation to protect the public and maintain public confidence in the reputation of the profession.”
While the tribunal recognised that Mr Slade had “genuine insight into his misconduct [and] had made good the shortage by entering into an equity release scheme so as to ensure that none of his clients suffered any financial loss”, the “only appropriate and proportionate sanction” was to strike him off.
The tribunal rejected an SRA claim for £10,817 in costs as “disproportionate” in view of the early admissions and ordered that the respondent pay costs of £8,550.