Lawyer admits stealing from clients' funds

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A former solicitor who has so far cost the Law Society compensation fund an estimated pounds 7m after it was discovered that he illegally used clients' money, yesterday admitted 10 charges of theft when he appeared at Maidstone Crown Court in Kent.

Graham Ford's guilty pleas covered responsibility for losses not less than pounds 5m. Ford, 52, appeared alongside a former colleague, William Bew, 36, a solicitor who worked in the probate department of the large law firm which Ford headed. Mr Bew, of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, denied four charges involving the falsification of information relating to clients' accounts handled by Ford's firm. The law practice, which closed in 1992, once operated 10 offices in London and the South-east with a staff of 152.

Ford, now a declared bankrupt, of Battle in East Sussex, was struck off by the Law Society in 1993 following an internal investigation by the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau.

The thefts occurred between 1989 and 1992. According toTim Barnes QC, for the prosecution, Ford had "systematically stolen from clients' accounts" by using interim bills that were fictitious. Although the total amounts of the thefts itemised in the 10 charges totalled about pounds 150,000, Ford's guilty pleas were regarded as specimens of the dishonesty he carried out between 1989 and 1992.

Mr Barnes told the court that Ford's overall responsibility was accepted to be a sum of not less than pounds 5m and that the Law Society compensation fund had paid out pounds 7m to cover the losses incurred by his firm. Most of the thefts related to probate work carried on by the firm. The sums described in the 10 counts ranged from only a few thousand pounds to pounds 29,000 for one account.

In September this year, the Law Society issued a writ claiming pounds 8.5m damages from accountants KPMG over its work for Ford's firm. The writ claims KPMG, which filed annual accounting reports on the firm, was "negligent and in breach of its duty of care by failing adequately to examine the account books and other records". KPMG said it will be "contesting the writ vigorously".

Ford will be sentenced at the end of Mr Bew's trial, which continues today and is expected to last up to eight weeks.