Working as a sole practitioner in South Wales firm Keith Smart & Co, probate solicitor, Keith Smart was struck off by The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal due to excessively overcharging clients on purpose.
Deceitful Smart, who was born in 1952 and became a solicitor in 1979, excessively swindled client funds and duly admitted to eight counts of dishonesty.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) informed the tribunal that Smart’s fraudulent behaviour consisted of accounts being botched, made or permitted round sum transfers of at least £128,000 on account of the firm’s costs, and caused or gave permission of debit balances to exist on client accounts.
Furthermore, the SRA suspected that Smart had fleeced a number of his clients as he had overcharged one client by a minimum of £70,765 and then tried to lie to investigators who were looking into his conduct.
The tribunal judgment said:
“[Smart] had admitted eight counts of dishonesty. His misconduct was assessed as very serious. He had deliberately and excessively overcharged clients. He also deliberately misled the [SRA] both during his interview and in writing.”
“The tribunal considered that given the serious nature of the allegations admitted, the only appropriate and proportionate sanction was to strike the respondent from the roll.”
In his defence, Smart’s solicitor stated that his firm lost an experienced cashier and there had been a ‘catastrophic failure’ in the accounts systems. By his own admission, he revealed lying to investigators during the interview as he felt under pressure. He confirmed he has replaced shortages found in probate estates and apologised ‘profoundly’ for his actions.
Smart was ordered to pay costs of £20,151.64.
In 2018, a solicitor was struck off for exploiting a vulnerable client and a sole practitioner in Essex was struck off for over billing clients. Consequently, this year, a solicitor was also struck off for illegally backdating an Enduring Power of Attorney.
Working in Wills and estate planning can be a highly complex profession. With increases in inheritance disputes, and difficulties in resolving contentious probate claims plus explosion of later life illnesses resulting in a lack of capacity – means legal service providers must ensure their processes are robust as far as possible to avoid any potential conflict and issues.
This blatant disregard of client funds from a minority of unscrupulous individuals who took advantage of their profession should not over shadow the fact that private client lawyers provide a comprehensive, often intricate service that is vital to most families – and most people may need to rely on several times in their lives.
What can be done to protect the Wills and probate sector from a minority of individuals who take advantage of their position and misuse client funds?