Private Client Solicitor Struck Off For Acting Dishonestly And Without Integrity
A solicitor has been struck off the roll of solicitors for failing to properly advise his clients after a number of them collectively bequeathed him in excess of £400,000 over a four-year period.
Between January 2011 and November 2016, Jonathan Leslie Horner, was found guilty of acting dishonestly and without integrity after preparing wills for clients under which significant gifts on death were made to him and/or members of his family and/or members of the family of an employee of the Firm.
In most cases, he failed to advise clients to obtain independent advice and continued to act for these clients, executing their Wills, whilst the independent advice was still being sought or had failed to be undertaken entirely.
Whilst executing FF’s Will in 2011, the widow with no children was familiar with Mr Horner as he had completed a number of past wills for the family. In no previous iterations had Mr Horner been named as a beneficiary.
Numerous attendance notes state that, throughout 2010, FF and Mr Horner had met to discuss the beneficiaries in her final Will which was being updated following the death of her husband.
Throughout these meetings, spanning between June and November, FF was confused about who would inherit her estate.
However, in November, FF instructed Mr Horner to leave the entirety of her estate to Mr Horner and one other beneficiary, ES. Understanding that the proposed legacy involved an own interest conflict, an independent solicitor, IM, was instructed to provide legal advice to FF.
After the meeting in October 2010, IM advised Mr Horner that FF ‘was not in a fit state to receive instruction’ with questions over her capacity being raised.
Mr Horner later used a colleague and paralegal, SC, to offer her official opinion instead of using the services of IM; a tactic, the tribunal inferred, avoided a delay to any future Will being drafted.
The final Will omitted ES, leaving everything to Mr Horner.
Nine other cases were considered in the hearing, including a 2016 Will leaving £100,000 to Mr Horner in addition to £5,000 to both of his children and a £10,000 legacy gift to SC’s daughter.
No advice suggesting the donors should ask for another legal opinion was offered in four of the ten cases. Advice was offered by SC, a colleague and friend of Mr Horner, in three cases with retrospective advice offered in one case after the Will had been executed.
The tribunal found that the motivation in all cases was financial personal gain. Mr Horner did not consider the best interests of his clients, failed to act with integrity and was consistently dishonest.
As a result, Mr Horner was struck of the roll of solicitors and ordered to pay £56,381.90 costs.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal verdict and sanction commented:
“The misconduct was so serious that a Reprimand, Fine or Restriction Order would not be a sufficient sanction to protect the public or the reputation of the profession from future harm by the Respondent. The misconduct was at the highest level and the only appropriate sanction was a strike-off. The protection of the public and of the reputation of the profession demanded nothing less. The misconduct here was significant, prolonged and reprehensible. Many of the persons had sadly subsequently died. Over a period of four years, the individuals bequeathed him in total £404,000.
“The Tribunal found that a worrying pattern of behaviour had emerged in evidence. Each individual was vulnerable. They had few or no surviving relatives. The Respondent had befriended them often paying visits out of office hours for no apparent or ostensible professional reason. There were no independent witnesses or extraneous evidence as to their prior testamentary wishes. Each of the clients had left legacies to the Respondent, ostensibly of their own volition. Some received limited legal advice post execution of their wills while others had received no advice at all. When in some cases advice was given, it was done on several occasions by a former close colleague of the Respondent who was not independent for the reasons set out above. Their careers had been inextricably linked and progressed on a very close footing.
“The Respondent’s lack of insight as demonstrated in his evidence was astonishing and disturbing in equal measure.
“The clients had clearly not been afforded the considerable and understandable protection given to members of the public by the professional conduct rules applicable at the material time.
“The Tribunal considered whether there were any exceptional circumstances that would make such an order unjust in this case. There had been none advanced by Mr Parker and the Tribunal identified none from the facts of this case. The Tribunal considered that the reputation of the profession would be seriously undermined by anything other than a strike-off.”
How damaging, are actions like this, to the credibility and respectability of legal service users in the Wills and probate sector?