Partner of top law firm struck off after dispensing client’s estate for the benefit of his associate
A leading law firm’s partner has been struck off after administering an estate to benefit an associate.
The client whose will he was revising, was unaware of his personal relationship with one of the beneficiaries, who was an associate at the firm. He granted her 11 times the amount she was due from the estate after giving himself the power to do so following his client’s death.
Anthony Reese Whitwell qualified in 1983 and was a one-time head of private client and partner at Penningtons Godalming office until January of 2013. He later moved to Clarke Willmott as a partner, before leaving in September of 2015.
Mr Whitwell accepted that he would be struck off for his conduct in a statement of newly published agreed facts, admission and outcome, which removed the need for a full hearing and was approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
It stated that until August 2012, Mr Whitwell had at all material times been in a “confidential personal relationship” with ‘Ms F’, a woman who was working as part of his team and who was a solicitor at the firm.
On 14 August 2012, he informed Ms F that the relationship was over, as well as letting his wife know about the affair the following week. Shortly after this, Ms F resigned.
With the original intention to prepare a lasting power of attorney, a Mrs JDB had been introduced to the firm in 2010 by Ms F, her mother’s lifelong friend. Mr Whitwell was asked to review the 2006 will of Mrs JDB in 2011, which bequeathed £50,000 to Ms F among numerous other legacies.
He prepared a will transferring the residuary estate of Mrs JDB to the executors, who were partners of the firm, to be held on discretionary trust. Included was a letter of wishes which stated again that Ms F was to receive £50,000.
Mr Whitwell at no point disclosed to the firm or Mrs JDB that he and Ms F were in a relationship.
Following the death of Mrs JDB a few months later, a deed was drawn up by Mr Whitwell, appointing himself as the sole executor. Prior to the end of their relationship, he also granted Ms F a legacy of £550,000 by exercising his discretion under the will.
Pennington’s compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) referred the matter to the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) in December 2012.
The firm later referred the estate to Paris Smith, another firm, in order for discretion to be exercised upon distribution of the residuary estate again. Agreeing to execute a deed of variation, Ms F returned the funds to allow for this.
Stating that he should have advised Mrs JDB to take independent advice regarding her bequest to Ms F, Mr Whitwell admitted to acting in a conflict of interest. In granting Ms F £550,000, he admitted to acting without integrity, acting where there was a conflict of interest and had allowed his independence to be compromised. In doing so, Mr Whitwell had acted dishonestly. He also admitted that he had dishonestly and falsely claimed to the regulator that the deed of appointment had not been drafted, as well as causing his solicitor to tell the SRA the same lie.
Mr Whitwell’s barrister told the tribunal: “[Mr Whitwell] had never previously thought of himself as a dishonest person, and his recollection of the period was poor. He could not fully explain why he had acted in the way he did. He now admitted the allegations of dishonesty to which there appeared objectively to be no credible answer.
“[His] focus now was on preserving his improved mental state and rebuilding his relationship with his wife. He no longer wished to practise as a solicitor and had no desire to face a contested hearing which raked over these issues which had already caused him and his family much pain. He wished to put the chapter of his life to which this these allegations related, and about which he was ashamed, behind him.”
Striking Mr Whitwell off was ruled by the SDT as “clearly appropriate” and he agreed to pay £56,000 in costs.