Nearly five years after he was struck off the Roll of Solicitors for stealing money from an elderly client, Stephen Acres has now been sentenced to six years in jail. Many may recall the original SDT case from 2017 when Mr Acres, 58, was found to have stolen over £340,000 from an elderly client diagnosed with dementia over a period of three years between 2013 and 2016. Here we will review why Mr Acres was originally struck off and the recent trial which led to his imprisonment.
Background to the case
Mr Acres was admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in 1999 and was formerly a partner at Stanley De Leon Solicitors (the Firm). In early 2013, the Firm was instructed to draft two LPAs on behalf of the victim relating to their property, financial matters, and health and welfare. The LPAs named the victim’s sister and Mr Acres as joint and several attorneys for the victim’s affairs. Subsequently, the victim’s sister died in 2013, leaving Mr Acres as the sole attorney. This enabled Mr Acres to misappropriate the funds of the deceased over a number of years. He stole more than £340,000 from the victim, including:
- Repaying a personal debt to another Solicitor using funds from the victim’s bank account – this was referred to the SRA, but the matter was adjourned when Mr Acres claimed the payment was made in error.
- Transferring £225,000 from the sale of the victim’s property sale to an unknown bank account in 2015. It was later discovered that this money had been transferred to the bank account of a former partner of Acres, who later funnelled most of the money back to him.
- Signing and drawing a cheque on the victim’s account for £4,030.00 made out to his personal account.
- Authorising an online transfer for £12,200.00 to his personal account.
- Using a debit card on the account to make personal payments for his own benefit.
- Making cash withdrawals from the account using a debit card for his own benefit.
- Making a CHAPS transfer in June 2016 to the value of £42,404.74 to the Firm’s client account.
As a result of his actions, the Court of Protection intervened, removing Mr Acres’ access to his victim’s bank accounts.
In 2017, Mr Acres was struck off by the SDT. At the time, they stated, “He was an experienced solicitor who was fully aware of his obligations to his client…His conduct had caused significant harm to his client and to the reputation of the profession, and was a complete departure from the standards of integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of a Solicitor”. He was also ordered to pay costs of £70,000.
Such was the severity of Mr Acres’ wrongdoing, in particular the theft of the £225,000, the matter was referred to Hertfordshire Constabulary’s Serious Fraud and Cyber Unit.
Findings of the police investigation
On 25th March 2022, Mr Acres appeared at St Albans Crown Court to face criminal proceedings for his actions. He admitted to the theft of the £225,000 and creating a false Deed of Variation with the intent of making it appear that his victim has consented to the transaction, pleading guilty in advance of the court case. However, he denied some of the charges.
The court found Acres guilty of 11 charges, and he was sentenced in May to six years’ imprisonment. The judge stated that Acres was entirely motivated by his own needs with little concern for his victim.
Summing up the case, Detective Constable Liz Heath, representing the Serious Fraud and Cyber Unit who ran the investigation, stated, “Stephen Acres was trusted to safeguard the finances of a vulnerable and elderly woman suffering with dementia. However, once the other attorney passed away, it gave Acres free access to the victim’s account to use it as though it were his own. He stole large sums of money from her, in order to pay off debts as well as towards a lifestyle, and despite claiming to have the intention of paying it back, he made no attempts to do so. He just continued to spend the money of an elderly woman, who had worked hard her whole life, and had believed he was there to do the right thing by her.”
Mr Acres had been entrusted with managing the financial, personal, and financial affairs of an elderly client with dementia, and his significant betrayal of that trust has resulted in the loss of his career and now imprisonment. This case serves as a reminder that the most serious breaches of the SRA’s Code of Conduct and Principles do not end with the SDT and that matters involving fraud and other serious criminal wrongdoing will be referred to the police.
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