A woman who obtained a grant of letters of administration and then used a firm of licensed conveyancers to defend herself against a claim from other potential beneficiaries, has been told by the High Court that she has to pay back to the estate nearly £87,000 given to the firm that has been lost.
Facing legal action to revoke the grant, Andrene Kerr-Robinson instructed Blueprint Property Lawyers, which was not licensed to conduct probate or litigation work.
Master Matthews, sitting in the Chancery Division, said: “Nevertheless, in relation to this case at least, it appears to have done both of these things.”
Blueprint went into insolvent liquidation in early 2014 and was intervened in by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.
Master Matthews recorded: “The Council of Licensed Conveyancers has apparently disclaimed any liability to indemnify the estate, as the losses it suffered took place in the course of probate and litigation work, which Blueprint was not authorised to carry on. Although one of the employees of Blueprint was a solicitor, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has similarly disclaimed any liability.”
One of Blueprint’s directors told the court that he relied on counsel to conduct the litigation, although Master Matthews was unclear on whether this barrister worked in-house for a separate company or was – as appeared from bills rendered by Blueprint – an employee of the firm.
Master Matthews’ ruling in Lyons & Anor v Kerr-Robinson  EWHC 2137 (Ch) focused on £86,765 that was paid over to Blueprint in 2012 and lost to the estate.
The retainer referred to an agreement that Ms Kerr-Robinson would “immediately transfer into Blueprint’s client account for safe holding the current balance of the funds you presently hold on this matter”.
The money was paid in two tranches either side of an undertaking she gave the court not to dispose of or distribute any assets of the estate until further order. The barrister represented her in court.
Later in 2012, Michael Brindle QC, sitting as a deputy judge, revoked the grant of letters of administration, and ordered her to deliver the assets of the estate to an interim administrator, and not dispose of or deal with the estate assets in the meantime.
However, by then, most if not all of the money had been moved into Blueprint’s office account.
Master Matthews said Ms Kerr-Robinson was in breach of her undertaking in respect of the money paid over after she gave it, and was also in breach in respect of the money paid before “by [later] allowing the monies to be used to pay Blueprint’s legal bills”.
He was highly critical of the bills, in particular the fees for the barrister shown as profit costs at an hourly rate of £550. One invoice charged for 107 hours of his work, carried out over 24 working days, amounting to nearly £59,000.
He said: “On any view this is a large number of hours, at a high rate of charge, even for a partner in a City law firm. For a barrister retained by a small firm of licensed conveyancers, even in the West End of London, it is remarkable. And, in the context of a dispute over an estate worth a few hundred thousand pounds at best, it is extraordinary.”
Even if Ms Kerr-Robinson did not know that Blueprint had transferred the money to office account, as she claimed, “then her failure to take any sufficient steps to ensure that the monies she believed still to be in the client account were safeguarded and transferred to the administrator would mean that she was in breach of the order of Mr Brindle QC”.
Unusually, Master Matthews also offered an alternative analysis, ruling that Ms Kerr-Robinson had not acted reasonably in defending the proceedings.
“I record that, first of all, the defendant engaged lawyers who were in fact not authorised to conduct litigation at all. Second, the defendant agreed to the retainer of Blueprint, including their high charging rates, instructing Blueprint to go ahead, and did not place any kind of cap or limit on the value of the work which Blueprint did or the charges it could make…
“Overall, I am not satisfied that it was proper for the defendant on behalf of the estate and at the estate’s expense to engage Blueprint to defend the defendant in the litigation in which she was involved.”
The master also rejected the submission that he should excuse Ms Kerr-Robinson for any breach of fiduciary duty on the basis that she acted honestly and reasonably.
“In the present case there was no need whatever for the defendant to hand over the estate monies to Blueprint for estate administration, or indeed any other estate purpose. In the retainer letter, there was a reference to transferring those monies to Blueprint ‘for safe holding’. But the monies were safe where they were. Indeed, as it turned out, rather safer.”
As a result, Master Matthew ruled that as “public policy requires that a person who commits an act or omission in breach of an injunction (or in breach of an undertaking in lieu of an injunction) should not be able to profit from it”, Ms Kerr-Robinson had to pay the estate’s administrator the £86,765, plus interest.