A former partner at a prominent London law firm has been disbarred after misappropriating nearly $100,000 from an estate trust during a two-year period.
James Skinner, a former partner at Harrison Pensa specializing in civil litigation, was found guilty of professional misconduct and conduct unbecoming of a licensee by a tribunal of the Law Society of Ontario, an oversight body for lawyers and paralegals.
According to a statement of agreed facts, Skinner was appointed as the trustee of an estate in May 2017. He authorized 21 cheques made payable to his spouse for a total of $98,600 between Oct. 5, 2018, and Feb. 28, 2020.
Skinner, 59, created purchase orders that didn’t include a purpose or have an invoice attached and provided those cheques – ranging from $1,500 to $8,500 – to his law firm’s accounting department, the tribunal said.
After the cheques were returned to Skinner, he deposited them into a joint bank account with his spouse, who wasn’t aware of the transactions. Skinner didn’t claim any of the money as compensation for his work, the tribunal said.
“Moreover, based on the firm’s partnership agreement, any funds paid to the lawyer as estate trustee or fees as lawyer of record for the estate belonged to the firm and not to the lawyer personally,” the tribunal wrote in its decision.
Skinner’s law firm became aware of his actions after one of the estate’s beneficiaries asked for an update on the final distribution of the estate, prompting a meeting where Skinner said the cheques were payments for cleaning and repairs to a property owned by the estate, the tribunal said.
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After the law firm requested more details about the services, Skinner admitted he took the money and made the cheques to his spouse without her knowledge, the tribunal said.
Skinner was escorted from the law firm on Aug. 26, 2021, and resigned, the tribunal said, adding the beneficiaries of the estate were reimbursed.
Harrison Pensa confirmed Skinner hasn’t been with the firm since August 2021 and said the firm co-operated with the tribunal’s investigation.
“We expect and demand the highest standards of professional conduct from all members of the firm, and we do not tolerate non-compliance,” chief operator Adam Jean said in a statement.
“As soon as firm management discovered the inappropriate conduct of Mr. Skinner, in his role as an estate trustee, he was escorted from the firm. The impacted parties and appropriate authorities were immediately notified, which included filing a complaint with the Law Society of Ontario.”
Harrison Pensa filed a complaint with the law society on Aug. 26, 2021, and Skinner agreed not to practise law until the investigation was completed. A hearing was held before a three-member panel on Aug. 25.
Skinner, whose co-operation with the investigation was cited in the tribunal’s decision, also was ordered to pay $2,000 in costs.
A LinkedIn profile for Skinner says he’s been a self-employed lawyer since September 2021. He has an undergraduate degree from McGill University and a law degree from Western University.