Dishonest ag lawyer struck off and told to pay £195,000 costs

A prominent agricultural lawyer has been struck off after a tribunal found he acted dishonestly and helped to conceal the amount of money made from a property sale from a mortgage lender.

Peter Rhys Williams, who is head of agriculture and a partner at Michelmores in Devon, helped a bankrupt client to hide the full sale price of the property from Northern Rock to avoid paying back the full £2.9m, a tribunal ruled.

The tribunal in London heard Mr Williams devised a “scheme” for a client, who had been declared bankrupt in April 2009 to “net a significant profit” from the sale of a property.

See also: Agricultural lawyer accused of misconduct appears before tribunal

The property, a large Edwardian house owned by Mr Williams’ client with stables and 17ha of land in the Home Counties, was independently valued at between £2.1m and £2.3m.

But Michael McLaren QC, of Bevan Brittan, prosecuting on behalf of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, told the tribunal Mr Williams planned to sell the property on to a friend known as “JD” for £3.9m. 

The “twin transactions” would net his client a healthy profit, he added.

Sub-sale ‘very real prospect’

Under the scheme, which Mr McLaren QC described as a “very real prospect”, the client’s £2.9m debt would be written off and the property would have been sold for £2.2m – the market value.

“In other words, leaving the client with an uncleared debt of about £700,000,” said Mr McLaren QC.

And Northern Rock – the mortgagee – would have been unlikely to pursue the client for the balance (£700,000), because it had not been made aware of the sub-sale.

Mr Williams, the author of the definitive textbook on the Law of Agricultural Holdings, was prosecuted by the SRA, in relation to a time when he worked at Wilsons Solicitors in Wiltshire in 2013.

Mr Williams was removed from the roll of solicitors on Friday (9 December) following the 10-day hearing at a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in London.

The allegations the SRA made against Mr Williams, under the Solicitors Code of Conduct 2007, were that he:

  1. Failed to act with integrity
  2. Failed to act in the best interests of his client
  3. Failed to behave in a way that maintained the trust the public placed in him and in the provision of legal services
  4. Took unfair advantage of third parties in his professional capacity
  5. He deceived or knowingly misled the court

The allegations were made on the basis that Mr Williams was dishonest.

The tribunal found allegations one, three and four proven, including the allegation of dishonesty. It did not find proven allegations two and five.

The tribunal ordered that Mr Williams be struck off the roll of solicitors and that he pay the SRA’s costs, initially assessed at £195,000.

Appeal planned

The tribunal aims to publish written decisions within seven weeks of the end of the hearing. Once the decision is published, Mr Williams would have 21 days to appeal to the High Court.

In a statement, Michelmores said Mr Williams planned to appeal.

Simon Barnett, partner and head of private client at Michelmores, said: “Following a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal hearing that concluded on 9 December 2016, Peter Williams, partner in Michelmores’ Agriculture team will no longer be able to practise as a solicitor under SRA regulations having been found to have committed a single act of dishonesty and having acted with a lack of integrity.

“The events considered by the tribunal relate to allegations made before Peter Williams joined Michelmores LLP.

“Peter and his legal team will be appealing the decision.”

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