A former solicitor and disability claims tribunal judge, and her husband, forged a will and letter to obtain two adjacent cottages in order to create one, large retirement home for themselves. On conviction, they were sentenced to six month's jail, the maximum sentence. This case should remind readers of the serious penalties for forgery.

Background

The fraud was committed by Margaret Hampshire, and her husband, Alan Hampshire.

The will

The first cottage was owned by Martin Blanche, who died in 2007. Mrs Hampshire administered Mr Blanche's estate and claimed to have found a will while clearing out the contents of Mr Blanche's home following his death. Under the "will" Mr Blanche purportedly left the first cottage and his share in the second cottage to his cousin, Josephine Burroughs. Mrs Hampshire and Ms Burroughs were also related.

There was doubt cast at the time as to the validity of the will. It was widely believed Mr Blanche was illiterate, therefore unlikely to have written a will. Nonetheless the will was admitted to probate and both properties were transferred into Ms Burroughs' name.

The letter

The second cottage was part owned by Mr Blanche and Ms Burroughs. Mrs Hampshire had been granted power of attorney over the affairs of Ms Burroughs.

Following the transfer of both cottages into Ms Burroughs' name, Mrs Hampshire produced a letter, purportedly typed by Ms Burroughs, to the effect of "I have thought about Martin and the cottages at Rolleston and as we discussed I definitely do not want anything to do with it…I think it's fair for you to have it, and I am happy for Sarah [the Hampshires’ daughter], to have them if that is what you want." The letter was dated 24 February 2007 and apparently signed by Ms Burroughs. Mrs Hampshire later admitted that she had written it in 2009 and that Ms Burroughs' signature had been forged.

Abuse of power of attorney

Mrs Hampshire subsequently used her power of attorney over Ms Burroughs' affairs to transfer ownership of both cottages to her daughter, Sarah Hampshire, to avoid inheritance tax.

In 2012 Mr Hampshire stole £23,176 from Ms Burroughs' bank account to fund the conversion of the two cottages into one, large cottage.

Ms Burroughs died in January 2014, prior to the discovery of the forgery and fraud.

In 2016 the Hampshires sold their home and moved into the renovated cottage, following which their offences were discovered due to a dispute with a neighbour.

The trial

Although Mr and Mrs Hampshire initially denied the claims, they eventually pleaded guilty at trial in November 2016. Mrs Hampshire pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and one count of fraud. Mr Hampshire admitted forgery and two counts of theft.

Timothy Greene QC, for Mrs Hampshire, argued that there had been no intention to cause financial harm and that Ms Burroughs had been telling third parties that she wanted to leave the property to Mrs Hampshire. Mr Greene QC argued that "This was the first example of her smoothing the passage, improperly proved, to enable her to achieve the end that would have been achieved in any event." However there was the issue of whether Ms Burroughs had wanted the cottages transferred before or after her death.

Similarly, Peter Lownds, for Mrs Hampshire, alleged he had forged the will for "reasons of expediency" and that "There was no will. Having a will meant the administration of the estate could be conducted in a speedier and more straightforward manner." Mr Lownds stated, in relation to the will, that his understanding was "…It was her words, and his handwriting."

Decision

On 20 December 2016 Senior Circuit Judge Gregory Dickinson QC sentenced the Hampshires to three concurrent jail terms of six months each.

Judge Dickinson QC admonished Mrs Hampshire in particular for committing the offences while still employed by the Ministry of Justice as a disability claims tribunal Judge and for abusing her position of attorney to Ms Burroughs. Judge Dickinson QC told Mrs Hampshire that "You actually played fast and loose with the Land Registry, probate service and your own cousin's affairs", "You abused your knowledge and experience gained as a solicitor, forgetting or ignoring the need to act with integrity" and "Your terrible fall from grace and your age cannot save you from an immediate custodial sentence."

Judge Dickinson QC also made findings against Mr Hampshire, concluding that he had written the will at the direction of Mrs Hampshire and that Mr Hampshire had stolen £23,000 from Ms Burroughs' account, which was "an appalling abuse of a position of trust".

A further hearing is to be held in 2017 as to whether the Hampshires will be required to pay compensation and forfeit the cottages.

Learning point

As Judge Dickinson QC sentenced both defendants to the maximum jail term of six months under section 6 of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, it appears that the Court did not accept the defendants' pleaded mitigating factors of expediency and inevitability. It goes without saying that a potential beneficiary should not seek to expedite the transfer of any property or benefits by forgery and the consequences of doing so can be severe.