A Wigan lawyer has been struck off for improperly using almost £88,000 from his own firm’s client account.
Former Leigh Centurions chairman Keith Freer was accused of 10 breaches of the Solicitors’ Code of Conduct in total and the ruling against him called his dishonesty of misappropriation of funds “deliberate, calculated and repeated”.
The 60-year-old, who failed to appear at the solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal and so was dealt with in his absence, was said to have “siphoned off the money” in order to help prop up his then firm Widdows Mason which was in financial straits.
A ruling, in which Freer was also ordered to pay £19,500 in legal costs, said: “The respondent attempted to conceal his actions by moving the money through suspense accounts before transferring the monies into the office account.
“Such actions demonstrated, it was submitted, that the respondent was aware that his conduct was improper.
“His actions were a conscious decision to siphon money off the client account and use it for the firm’s benefit when the firm was in financial difficulties.”
The ruling pointed out that he had “improperly and dishonestly” used client money in no fewer than 163 transactions over four years.
Freer also fell foul of the code of conduct by making a £69,700 loan from the firm to his client MGC Ltd to help it fund litigation between it and another party, known only as Mr W, who wanted to prevent MGC from operating a golf course from its premises.
And he also further breached the code by acting for both the borrower and the lender in a loan agreement, thus creating a conflict of interest where he couldn’t be seen to be getting the best deal for one or other of the parties.
There was a similar clash as far as that loan was concerned because it was to be used by the party, known as Mr JY, to pay legal costs to Widdows Mason and buy land at Kearsley in Bolton of which Freer was to hold the legal title jointly with Mr JY.
Freer, who stepped down as Centurions’ chairman in 2013, did contest the allegations against him in a written answer submitted beforehand but these were largely dismissed by the panel.
In mitigation he had said that the transfer of cash from the suspense account was “the only alternative to closing the firm.” But he then admitted he “made this deeply regrettable decision, the consequences of which will now remain with me forever, together with the harm it has caused and will continue to cause my family.”
He said he was “extremely distressed that I have allowed events to cloud my judgement, and he said that he had resigned himself to never practising as a solicitor again, regardless of the tribunal’s decision.”
The hearing was told that the misappropriation of funds and other code breaches came to light in June 2014 when a forensic investigation officer from the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority began an inspection of the books. By that time Widdows Mason had closed and was now HCB Widdows Mason.
The ruling read: “The respondent had caused significant harm to the reputation of the profession; it is the ultimate tenet of the profession that solicitors do not spend client monies for improper purposes.
“The respondent had departed from the integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of him as a solicitor.
“Further, the repondent had failed to repay any of the monies improperly taken. It was wholly foreseeable that clients would lose out.
“His conduct was was aggravated by his proven dishonesty, which was deliberate, calculated and repeated.”