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Legal secretary to be sentenced for fraud

By Tom Pugh

A former legal secretary will be sentenced today after swindling almost £500,000 from a wealthy client, leading to the closure of a family-run firm of solicitors.

Leanne Harris, 25, wrote a string of false cheques out in the name of a Mr Harris, depriving Joan Watson of more than £419,000 of her savings.

She committed the offences while working at Arscotts Solicitors in Lansdowne Place, Hove, East Sussex, which later went under with the loss of up to 36 jobs.

At Hove Crown Court last November, Harris admitted five counts of fraud between November 2008 and May 2010 against Ms Watson.

She also pleaded guilty to the theft of £64,815 between August 2007 and April 2010 from Miriam Turnbull over whom she had power of attorney.

Some time before joining Arscotts, Harris set up her own company through which she approached charities offering a free wills service.

The court was told that it was believed to have been through this service that she came into contact with Ms Turnbull.

The prosecution did not open the full details of their case at the plea and case management hearing.

But defence counsel Lewis Power QC said Harris and her husband had been in financial strife, struggling to repay loans, meet bills and pay a mortgage.

An "underlying problem" concerned her husband who suffered from a psychotic personality which had "manifested itself" in Harris, who has no previous convictions, he added.

She had also struggled with her mother suffering a nervous breakdown and her father being diagnosed with bowel cancer, which is now in remission.

Harris, who left school with seven GCSEs but had never passed exams as a legal executive, has since repaid about £250,000 with the help of her family, Mr Power said.

Judge Michael Lawson QC warned that the starting point for sentencing of Harris, of Gildredge in Whitesmith, near Lewes, would be four years in jail.

Harris is on conditional bail. Sentencing will take place at Hove Crown Court from 2pm.

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