Law: The perfect crime (almost)

Were it not for two sharp-eyed solicitors, three chancers would have pulled off a pounds 1.5m fraud
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The Independent Culture
It was almost the perfect crime. Who would have suspected that the little old lady sitting in her armchair, carefully composing her last will and testament was not the person she was pretending to be? The solicitor's clerk was there to make sure everything was legal, and there was a witness to oversee proceedings. The impostor had even gone to the trouble of removing her own false teeth to create a more aged appearance. Such details mattered, as there was a huge fortune at stake.

The document was signed and Miss Annie Kay's will was changed so that her entire pounds 1.5m estate would no longer be divided between charities but instead would be bequeathed to David and Annette Spillman, the couple who had befriended the old lady and taken her into their home before she died. There was also a small amount, pounds 10,000, for Mrs Spillman's half sister, Anne Russill.

Last month, all three were given jail sentences for their part in what was finally exposed as a devious and calculating swindle. They would have got away with it ,too, had it not been for the actions of two high-street solicitors - Peter Boardman, from Leigh-on-Sea firm Cooper Lingard, and Peter Jefferys, from Henmans of Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

Mr Boardman, who had loyally served the 87-year-old woman, Annie Kay, as her personal solicitor, became suspicious as soon as he found out that his services would no longer be required. When he later learnt of Miss Kay's death in March 1997 he wrote to Scope - one of the charities named in the original will - to express his concern. As a result, Scope instructed Mr Jefferys to find out what he could about the circumstances behind the old lady's abrupt decision to change her will.

Explains Mr Jefferys: "The case was a difficult one. Almost everything about it stank, but I could simply not see how undue influence had been brought to bear." From his enquiries it became clear that Miss Kay had remained a very forceful lady right up until the time of her death. To add to Mr Jefferys' perplexity, the notes taken by the solicitor's clerk who oversaw the will change was precise and seemed to show everything to be in order.

But Mr Jefferys' first breakthrough came when his investigations revealed that the Spillmans' nursing home was no longer registered as a nursing home, and yet Miss Kay and her elderly companion had both been staying there.

This fact encouraged Mr Jefferys to pay a visit to one of Miss Kay's former neighbours in Leigh-on-Sea. "I was with Mrs Green [the neighbour] for about an hour and a half. My plan was to ask her as many questions as I could think of... Towards the end of the interview she said how much she regretted the fact she had not seen Miss Kay again after November 1996."

This was the telling remark which finally unlocked the case. According to the note made by the solicitor's clerk, Miss Kay returned home in February 1997 to make her will. But the neighbour now said she had not seen her on the date in question.

"It was at this moment that inspiration struck. I suddenly realised how the crime had been committed - if Miss Kay was not at the house when the will was signed, someone else must have signed it," remembers Mr Jefferys. The someone else was Anne Russill, a smaller woman, who had taken out her false teeth and puffed herself up in her chair. She had also made sure the clerk had made note of her, saying: "I don't want Dave and Annette to know what I am doing, so make sure they are not around."

Mr Jefferys set to work to see how easy it would have been to forge Miss Kay's signature. "The results were very satisfactory. If I could get a convincing likeness in a hurried half hour, surely a fraudster could do it with days to practice." Mr Jefferys took his findings to the police, and last week all three were jailed.

After the case, the police said: "But for the professionalism and diligence of the two solicitors involved, it is unlikely they would ever have been caught."

This remarkable tale of ingenuity is a perfect answer to those who criticise solicitors for not taking enough interest their cases. It also shows how solicitors can use their office to uncover and, with the help of the police, actually solve crime. Although the story does have a touch of the Miss Marples about it, it also shows what can be gained from a solicitor's enquiring mind.

However, in this country the lawyer is not encouraged to take on the role of the police or private investigator. The lawyer as private detective is a much more familiar role in the US. The way American cases are investigated, and the wider rules of evidence, makes it easier for US attorneys to get more involved in the detective side of a case.

Even so, earlier this year it was an English solicitor who helped crack a $20m international fraud. A former Watson Farley Williams trainee, Nick Newling, was sent to Romania by his firm to help find evidence against four Greek shipping tycoons who had conned the Berliner Bank, advised by the law firm, out of millions of dollars by borrowing money on the strength of ships that did not exist. While in Bucharest, where one of the companies was based, Mr Newling trawled though hundreds of documents. He finally came across two vital documents which linked the conspirators and helped prove the conspiracy. The Watson Farley Williams team made further headway by instructing a private investigator to trail one of the defendants, and by having subpoenaed BT records. At the time, Watson's partner David Kavanagh said: "The case shows that determined action by banks and their advisers can secure recovery against even the most resourceful fraudsters."

In the UK, the City has recently cottoned on to the idea of using law firms to investigate internal matters.

Most often, these kinds of investigations are carried out in secrecy. Companies make use of the recognised independence of law firms to conduct sensitive investigations into their own private affairs.

If the case involves deception or dishonesty and the company does not wish the affair to become public, law firms are sometimes preferred over the police. Both City lawyers and high-street solicitors can help the police bring villains to justice. The trick is learning how to smell a rat.