“Dishonesty at its highest level and gravity” – when solicitors commit offences against client estates

This blog post will consider a number of recent cases in England where solicitors have been convicted of offences or struck off the register for misappropriating client funds from deceased estates. These shed light on the surprising levels of abuse uncovered by the Courts and the English Solicitors Regulation Authority (the “SRA”), and the zero tolerance approach taken to solicitors who seek to personally benefit from the trust placed in them by their clients.

A number of common themes run through the cases, namely that offenders have often sought to explain and justify their actions through desperation, ill health and financial hardship. Further, the solicitors in question generally practised in local firms or as sole practitioners, where clients place a high degree of trust in them due to their geographical proximity and personal familiarity. Finally, the offences appear to have taken place over a number of years, with initial abuse turning into a pattern of offending.

During its investigations the SRA asserted that it is only in exceptional circumstances that a solicitor found to have acted dishonestly will avoid being struck off the register. Explanations and mitigating circumstances advanced in the cases below were not sufficient to overcome the serious breaches committed and the need to uphold public confidence in the legal profession.

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English Court resolves dispute between parties as to who should hold the power to appoint trustees following settlor’s death

The English High Court has recently approved an application to change the provision of a trust deed relating to the appointment of new trustees.[1] The change was necessary because the original power was reserved exclusively for the settlor, who had died. All adult beneficiaries of the trust supported the change, as did three of the four trustees.

This case illustrates the importance of having succession plans for the power of appointment of new trustees. It also addresses disputes between parties about changes to trust terms.

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Wills interpreted according to their ordinary and natural meaning despite this not reflecting testators’ intention

The English High Court has recently held that, in a case concerning construction of Wills, the ordinary and natural meaning of survivorship clauses should be given effect to.[1] This operated to mean that certain beneficiaries under the Wills of a husband and wife benefitted twice, which the parties agreed was not the couple's intention. The claimants were the executrices of the couple's estates (and also beneficiaries of the estates). They wished to know how to distribute the estates. The claimants wanted the Court to interpret the Wills in accordance with the couple's intention. This would have meant that they received less under the Wills than they would have done if the Wills were interpreted in their ordinary and natural terms. The defendants were the solicitor who drafted the Wills and his firm.

The case is a reminder to executors of the importance of administering estates in accordance with the terms of the Wills. The case is also a reminder to draftsmen of the importance to accurately convey a testator's intention when drafting a Will.

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UK: Deceased’s “husband” and daughter both unable to obtain letters of administration

The English High Court has recently refused to grant letters of administration to a deceased's daughter (the "Claimant") despite her having the highest entitlement to the deceased's estate.[1] The dispute involved a challenge by the alleged widower of the deceased (the "Defendant"), who was found not to have been validly married to the deceased. Therefore the Court declined to grant the Defendant letters of administration. Nonetheless, the Court found that the Claimant had deliberately lied to Court and thus also declined to grant her letters of administration. Instead, the Court exercised its jurisdiction to appoint "some other person" as administrator. This case is a reminder that all parties need to act lawfully and properly when presenting evidence or face the consequences.

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Hong Kong Court of Appeal affirms law on express, constructive and resulting trust

The Hong Kong Court of Appeal ("CA") in Ip Fung Kuen v Sam Kee Frozen Meat Co Ltd and others (CACV 107/2016) recently affirmed the well-established principles of express, constructive and resulting trust under Hong Kong law. As well as confirming those principles, the judgment is also noteworthy because of the CA's confirmation of the Court of First Instance ("CFI")'s finding that the plaintiff's lack of education and sophistication in comparison with the appellant (a company established and controlled by the plaintiff's eldest brother) was relevant to whether a trust was established. The CA upheld the CFI's ruling that the appellant held the disputed property in trust for the plaintiff.

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BVI Court of Appeal Comment on Trustees’ Duty to Account and Evidential Presumptions in Trusts

The BVI Court of Appeal has recently allowed an appeal concerning a trustee's failure to account and breach of trust.[1] The breach of trust arose as a result of the trustee making an appointment of the trust assets without considering all relevant circumstances. In overturning the decision, the Court noted that if a settlor transfers further property to the trustee, a presumption arises that such property is to be held on trust under the same terms as the original trust. Such presumption can be rebutted, but the burden of proof rests with the trustee to do so.

The case has interest for private wealth matters regardless of jurisdiction, given the popularity of the BVI when structuring assets.

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Jersey Court gives directions to trust company under the Foundations (Jersey) Law 2009

The Royal Court of Jersey has recently heard the second application under the Foundations (Jersey) Law 2009 (the “Foundations Law”). The Application was from a trust company in its capacity as the sole council member of a set of foundations (the "Foundations"). The trust company sought directions as to whether it could amend certain provisions of the Foundations' constitutional documents.  If the Court found that the trust company had the requisite powers, the trust company sought the Court's approval in making the amendments.

This judgment will be of interest to Asian high net worth families and their advisors because Jersey is a popular offshore jurisdiction, and more and more Asian high net worth families are considering using foundations in their structures.

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Family dispute over the setting-up of a trust rejected because plaintiff consented to the trust at the time of establishment

In a recent case, the Singapore High Court has held that a plaintiff's agreement to the setting-up of a trust to protect a family's wealth (including the assets of a deceased family member) was a valid defence for a defendant facing claims of breach of duty as executrix and breach of trust.[1] The case illustrates that the setting up of a trust structure designed to protect family wealth can defeat a claim for subsequent allegations of breach of trust.

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