The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has struck off a solicitor who was gifted more than £400,000 by clients in their wills.

As reported in the Law Gazette, the tribunal heard that Jonathan Leslie Horner, a former partner at the law firm, Sussex Law Limited, received the total through ten clients who gifted the money to him or his children over four years. The clients were not given independent advice.

Instead, they were advised by a paralegal who had previously worked as Mr Horner’s secretary, given the advice retrospectively or not given it at all.

‘Vulnerable’ clients

The clients were all described as vulnerable—people with few or no surviving relatives and many of them have since died.

Horner had been a solicitor for more than ten years and he had acted in the preparation of at least 3,500 wills. The tribunal concluded he had been motivated by personal gain.

In its judgement on Horner’s actions, the tribunal said they found he had “massively damaged the reputation of the profession by preying on vulnerable clients” – the tribunal also said he had abused his position.

‘Doubtful capacity’

They described his clients as elderly, widowed and childless in the main. There had been two instances where those clients “were of doubtful capacity”, as one had a diagnosis of dementia.

The wills caused harm to the families and the potential beneficiaries of the wills. The damage could not be quantified, but the damage to the legal profession was described as obvious and significant.

The tribunal said a solicitor must stop acting or remove himself from the legacy where there was a conflict of interest, as there was in these cases. And if a client did decide to leave his or her solicitor a legacy and that person wanted to retain their services, then independent advice must be provided before the will was executed.

Not capable

Horner had asked his former secretary to provide advice instead of giving his clients a list of names of relevant solicitors, and the tribunal found she was not capable of providing such advice. In addition, he had dealt with potentially vulnerable clients and he should have exercised considerable caution when doing so.

Horner accepted that solicitors needed to exercise independent judgement when accepting gifts from their clients, and those clients’ requirement to have independent advice. However, he did not agree that the advice should come from a lawyer or that it must be done before the execution of the will.

He told the tribunal that he had been an honest solicitor, and that he believed his clients had retained the necessary capacity to make decisions and were able to cope with the details involved in making a will and leaving a legacy.

He added that he had a previously unblemished record and “had shown considerable insight”. But the tribunal found him to be dishonest and that a strike-off was inevitable. Horner was also ordered to pay the SRA costs of £56,381.

Finders International provides professional services for solicitors working in wills and probate, and we are regulated by the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers, Genealogists & Heir Hunters (IAPPR). 

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