We place a great deal of trust in a probate attorney administering a deceased estate. There are often many transactions we don’t have time to audit, or perhaps even understand. The biggest problem is we don’t know what to look for. That can leave us open to a breach of trust.
Here we tell the story of a solicitor who did commit fraud. We do this to illustrate that solicitors are not infallible despite parents teaching us you can trust a lawyer. While most are worthy of that reputation, unfortunately a few are not.
A Sobering Judgement at the Solicitors Disciplinary Panel
It’s now public knowledge that sole practioner and notary Vidal Eulalie Martin was struck off the Roll of Solicitors. She was ordered to pay costs amounting to £47,515. The Solicitors Disciplinary Panel found she had breached the rules as follows:
- Obtaining a cheque for £4,700 from a client and mading it payable to herself.
- Failing to deposit the cheque to the client’s account.
- Causing, or allowing the £4,700 cheque to be paid into her own account.
- Failing to document the transaction on her file, or justify it adequately.
- Treating the client’s £4,700 funds ‘as her own’ to spend as she decided.
How This State of Affairs Reached the Point It Did
The offending solicitor was administering a deceased estate that included a property. The complainant had an interest in it and may have been the beneficiary. The estate agent told the solicitor a frozen water tank had fallen through the ceiling and into a bathroom.
The solicitor and the complainant visited the property. While they were, the complainant issued a £4,700 cheque in favour of the solicitor. She was under the impression she would use it to pay for repairs. However, no such repairs were made and the property sold with the damage intact.
The complainant was taken aback. However, her case at the Solicitors Disciplinary Panel was weakened by her fading memory. She became confused as to the nature of the damage, the amount and whether she paid by in cash or by cheque.
Her legal representative asked her to make enquiries at various banks where she had accounts at the time. However, her case was on much firmer ground when one of these confirmed she had indeed issued a £4,700 cheque in favour of Vidal Eulalie Martin.
What We Can Learn from This
Rule 1 of the Solicitors Accounts Rules states a solicitor must keep a client’s money separate from their own. They must also maintain proper accounting rules to show they hold the funds in trust. The disgraced solicitor attempted to have the case dismissed because the complainant had not been able to prove every detail of her allegation.
However, the Solicitors Disciplinary Panel stood firmly on the side of an innocent person. They agreed her only mistake was to place too much trust in the solicitor. This is a sobering reminder of the principle ‘don’t tell me, show me please’.