The solicitor who cost the profession millions

GRAHAM Durnford Ford, who stole millions of pounds from the estates of dead clients, is guaranteed a special place in the legal profession's gallery of rogues.

Sadly, lining his own pockets at the expense of clients, colleagues, and ultimately his profession, has further eroded the public's trust in the high street solicitor.

Ford's unprecedented fleecing of the innocent, the vulnerable, and, largely, the elderly over the estates of deceased clients was done with such cynicism that Judge Croft QC said at his trial: “You cheated everyone who came your way…you cheated the dead…at no stage have I identified one aspect of remorse in you.”

And Andrew Jackson, the Serious Fraud Office lawyer heading the case, said: “Ford is responsible for a particularly cynical and unpleasant crime. He exploited people who were at their most vulnerable and also devastated the lives of wholly innocent people who he worked with.”

Ford, the 52-year-old former senior partner of 10-office south east firm Durnford Ford, pleaded guilty last month at Maidstone Crown court to 10 specimen charges of theft to the tune of £5 million.

However, the Law Society's Compensation Fund payments over Ford have now hit a record £8.7 million – about £260 extra for every practitioner on higher contributions to the fund.

In the trial, three years after his crimes came to light, Judge Croft said: “The case against you is overwhelming…about as grave a case as one can have by way of dishonesty.”

Ford did not operate unaided. William Digby Bew, the 38-year-old former partner and head of probate, received a 15-month suspended sentence after being found guilty of four charges of furnishing false information. But Bew was in some ways a victim too: “You were exposed to one of the most devious con-men I have ever come across,” Judge Croft told him.

The Durnford Ford story is not yet over. Ford has until the end of this week to appeal against his sentence. The Law Society is suing accountants KPMG, Durnford Ford's auditors, for negligence and is awaiting a hearing date. And Ford's other four, innocent, equity partners who blew the whistle on him – David Gunson, William James Elliott, Roy Kershaw and Geoffrey Spiller – are still suffering.

Having taken out Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs) with creditors (which would include the Law Society) they had to sell up and find new jobs. Along with Bew, they are also awaiting Disciplinary Tribunal hearings now the trial is over.

A spokesman for the Law Society said: “We deplore this case. Any high-profile fraud like this does damage to the reputation of the profession as a whole. There simply is no place for corrupt lawyers in the profession.”

To its credit, the society had covered most clients' losses swiftly. SFO insiders also praised the society and Solicitors Complaints Bureau for their handling of the case.

Durnford Ford was the eighth-biggest firm in The Lawyer Top 30 South East Firm survey in 1990, with around 60 fee earners.

When the recession bit, the firm ran into trouble. Much of the £5 million Ford stole was used to prop up the practice. But he also paid money owed to clients to himself, using fictitious bills and unauthorised interim payments. Bew helped to send out inflated final bills.

Between 1988 and 1992 Ford spent £870,000 of stolen money to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He spent £250,000 on improving his exclusive home in Battle, Sussex, ran up £123,000 on credit cards, spent almost £15,000 on a shopping spree and thousands more on his daughter's fees for the top school Benenden.

In spring 1992, Ford's other four partners discovered what was happening after receiving clients' complaints. They called in the Law Society, which appointed Wright Son & Pepper and Russell-Cooke Potter & Chapman to wind up the firm on 31 May, with 130 redundancies and a loss of £3.5 million. Accountants Touche Ross took over financial administration and handled the innocent partners' IVAs. Ford declared himself bankrupt.

The society alerted the police and SFO when losses grew to £7.2 million. The Disciplinary Tribunal struck off Ford, calling him a “disgrace to his profession”.

Milton Keynes firm Foinette-Quinn defended Bew.