Solicitors ‘inundated’ with queries about collapsed Ipswich firm which is under investigation



Solicitors claim they are being inundated with queries from people who gave their houses over to an Ipswich-based company, which has since collapsed.

Martin Leech on BBC Inside Out East

Martin Leech on BBC Inside Out East - Credit: Archant

Universal Wealth Preservation and around 13 related firms ran seminars over two decades up and down the country.

In these seminars, which were called ‘Keep It In The Family’, investors were encouraged to put their home into a trust run by the company and meant they no longer officially owned it in order to avoid paying inheritance tax and local authority care home fees.

Two people connected to the firms were arrested earlier this year and subsequently released as inquiries continue, and the Eastern Region Specialist Operations Unit (ERSOU) is currently looking into more than 100 reports of fraudulent activity relating to the Universal group of companies.

The BBC Inside Out East programme on Monday evening featured interviews with the family of Kenneth Leech, a man from Suffolk who is now in a care home with dementia who several years ago handed over his house and £75,000 of his savings to Universal Wealth Management.

Shirley Leech on BBC Inside Out East

Shirley Leech on BBC Inside Out East - Credit: Archant

His son Martin Leech explained: “There was never a statement from a bank, only a paper record - never anything to say that the money had been invested. When I called the number on the documents, it wasn’t connected. My heart stopped and I thought ‘what on earth do I do now?’

Kenneth Leech’s £850 a week care home fees are now being paid for with “diminishing funds”, his wife Shirley Leach explained.

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“He just wanted the best for the family. I could not believe it could happen to us.

“His actions have come back to haunt him.”

Barker Gotelee, a firm of solicitors in Ipswich, said that so far, it has been approached by more than 100 people seeking “help and advice” in the matter. Barker Gotelee has also been assisting other solicitors who have come to them for advice.

Companies under the Universal group umbrella have been trading under different names since 2008, and Barker Gotelee estimates there could be 7,000 to 8,000 clients who have set up trusts with the companies involved.

“We believe that the funds at risk are likely to be in the tens of millions,” said Barker Gotelee solicitor Rebecca McCarthy.

“They offered packages of documents which usually included Wills and letters of wishes, lasting powers of attorney, wealth preservation and family trusts with letters of wishes.

“The trusts are the main difficulty. The clients would usually have a trust each in which they would place their share of their home and appoint the directors of Universal or Universal Trustees LLP and Universal Lawyers Ltd as trustees.

“In some circumstances, clients also placed money or other investments into trust and the trustees also managed these. We had some Universal clients we were assisting early in the year and were in conversation with Universal, asking them to retire as trustees.

“Unfortunately they stopped all communication around March and then in April 2018, we understand that individuals were arrested.

“We have been going through the process of removing Universal as trustees of the trusts and placing people’s homes back into their names. We have had a large number of successful Land Registry applications.”

Ms McCarthy explained that most instances have been “relatively straight forward” cases of removing the company’s trustees from the house deeds. “But in about 10% of the cases, the house has been sold or money has been drawn down from it, and those are the cases of the most concern.

“We have had a very helpful discussion with the police and understand that they have seized documents from Universal.”

Mrs Ann-Marie Matthews, also a solicitor at Barker Gotelee, claims that what has happened in this case highlights the importance of using a regulated solicitors firm. “If Universal had been regulated, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) would have stepped in to ensure that clients were looked after and insurers or the compensation fund would have made good losses from negligence or fraud. Unfortunately, as Universal were unregulated, clients have no regulator to turn to to regain control of their property.”

Another solicitor, Liz Dalgetty, of Downs firm of solicitors in Surrey, says she has been getting phone calls from people all over the country who are concerned about money they have invested in one of the Universal companies. “In the last week, I’ve had well over half a dozen phone calls from people asking assistance.

“Conveyancing solicitors have never seen anything like it before and because of that, nobody can do anything.

The worst thing is that a lot of the company’s customers still don’t know about the allegations made about the firm, they are still in blissful ignorance.

“I think we are all going to be inundated. I am aggrieved, because I feel that vulnerable people have been left exposed.”

Action Fraud said at least 140 clients of Universal Wealth had contacted it about missing money, while Step, a professional association for tax practitioners, said it has also been receiving an unprecedented number of inquiries about the firm.

It permanently barred a director of the company earlier this month.

Another solicitor who has had clients over the years claiming against Universal Group is Chris Cumberbatch, who was recently taken on by Ashtons Legal in Bury St Edmunds,

He said: “I have represented clients who had been set up with their trusts at significant expense, but I could not see why they had been persuaded to do this for the benefit of their family, as indeed on one occasion they had no children.

“I have also been involved in assisting clients who are concerned both about the validity of their documents and crucially, whether they will be able to move house in the future if they need to.”

This newspaper has attempted to contact Universal Group for comment.