Solicitor helped himself to money in client account after ‘tidying -up” exercise

A solicitor who helped himself to client money while carrying out what he claimed was a “tidying-up” exercise of historic client account balances has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The tribunal decided [1] that Vernon Burke’s actions showed a “lack of moral soundness, a lack of rectitude and no adherence to an ethical code”.

It said Mr Burke had “maintained that bills had been sent out but had provided no evidence to support this assertion and he had not been believed in this regard”.

Acknowledging that this was a “sad case”, the SDT went on: “If the tribunal did not strike the respondent off, there was risk of harm to the public, not from the respondent who the tribunal considered would have learnt his lesson, but from the message that would be sent to the profession that it was acceptable to help oneself to small amounts of client money if subsequently it was repaid.”

The tribunal said client money was “sacrosanct” and had to be safeguarded.

Mr Burke, 57, was a sole principal, practising family law from Bridge Burke Solicitors in Kingston, Surrey, since 2005. He qualified in 1992.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) found out in 2015 that the firm’s accountant’s report had been qualified the previous year for having debit balances on client account. An investigation was launched and Mr Burke was referred to the tribunal last autumn.

The tribunal said Mr Burke was not a “credible witness”, and was “evasive” in his oral testimony, often failing to answer the questions he had been asked.

There were “stark inconsistencies” in his evidence, which the tribunal described as “wholly unconvincing”.

Mr Burke was found to have acted dishonestly and with a lack of integrity when he “cleared off residual balances on client accounts to a total value of £3,826 by issuing bills of costs and paying them from client funds when there was no proper justification to do so and without first sending those bills or other written notifications of the costs to the relevant clients”.

The tribunal said a “solicitor of integrity did not clear off residual balances, however small, without first taking steps to be absolutely certain he was entitled to the money”.

If there was no evidence on the files, he would “simply rely on his memory as to the work he thought he had done for each client”.

The SDT said that Mr Burke had argued that 17 bills were sent as part of a “tidying-up” exercise, but it found that the evidence did not support this – all the bills were for precisely the amount on client account and marked as paid the day after they were raised.

Everything pointed to the raising of the invoices as being a “paper exercise”, it found.

“Had this been a genuine ‘tidying-up exercise’, then an honest solicitor looking at his residual client balances and determining what could be billed would take steps to assure himself that the monies were due and would also have ensured that the bills were sent to the clients.”

The invoices were all reversed during the SRA’s investigation, but Mr Burke argued that this was about returning to a “state of compliance” rather than an admission of dishonesty,

Mr Burke admitted the other three charges against him, primarily improperly withdrawing a total of £47,205 from client account mainly as a result of transfers being made by the firm in excess of funds held by the client, although the withdrawals were all eventually rectified.

He also admitted failing to carry out reconciliations and operating two suspense ledgers in breach of the accounts rules.

On sanction, the tribunal said the mitigating factors were that once the SRA investigation had started, the “loss to the clients was made good”, and the misconduct was a “single episode in a previously unblemished career”.

However, an allegation of dishonesty had been proved against Mr Burke and there were no exceptional circumstances. It ordered that he should be struck off and pay £21,000 in costs.