Durnford Ford faces u8 million theft charge as case goes to trial

STRUCK-OFF solicitor Graham Durnford Ford will defend himself against Serious Fraud Office charges of stealing u8.5 million from his clients – including the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association – in a trial due to start this week.

The trial will be the culmination of a two and a half year investigation by Sussex police and the SFO following the collapse of Durnford Ford, which in 1990 was the South East’s eighth-biggest law firm.

Ford will defend himself after dismissing his London solicitors Magrath & Co. He is understood to have had his legal aid licence revoked at a hearing at Maidstone Crown Court.

Ford faces 10 counts of theft under Section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 and a further four counts of furnishing false information under Section 17 (1) (b) of the act.

William Digby Bew, another ex-partner of the firm, is also on trial and faces one count of theft and four counts of furnishing false information under the Theft Act 1968.

Magrath & Co partner Mark Haslam says he is unable to comment on the case for professional reasons.

Bew is represented by Chris Hollsworth, partner at crime and fraud firm Foinette-Quinn.

Bew is pleading not guilty. “There is an awful lot I would like to tell you, but at the moment we have not completed our work on what is an enormous case,” says Hollsworth.

Ford was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in July 1993. Tribunal proceedings against Bew and ex-partners Roy Kershaw, David Gunson and Bill William-Elliott have been adjourned until after the trial.

In 1990 Durnford Ford was a 22-partner, 59-fee earner high street firm based in Hastings with 10 other offices.

Irregularities in its probate department surfaced in 1992 and Ford resigned, blaming “administrative errors”.

The Solicitors Complaints Bureau closed the firm in 1992 with 152 redundancies and a reported loss of u3.5 million.

Touche Ross was appointed to administer the firm’s affairs and discovered that likely claims would reach u7.2 million. The remaining partners entered into Individual Voluntary Arrangements. Ford declared himself bankrupt.

Law firm Wright Son & Pepper was appointed to wind Durnford Ford down.

Sussex police referred the case to the SFO in December 1992 and Ford and Bew were charged in August 1993 at Hastings Magistrates’ Court.

The Compensation Fund rather than the Solicitors Indemnity Fund has had to pay out compensation because the alleged frauds relate to office accounts rather than client accounts.

The SCB says u8,474 has been paid out to date, with another u125,000 in outstanding claims.