Hove Legal Secretary Faces Jail

A former legal secretary faces jail after today pleading guilty to plundering a client's account to the tune of nearly £500,000.

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

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

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

Harris 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.

Prosecutor Michael Warren did not open the details of the Crown's case.

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.

He said: ``It started off with her taking £2,000 to pay bills. She thought no-one would notice and she would return the money before anyone did.

``But of course that became a spiral effect and smaller amounts turned to much larger amounts.'' Mr Power said Harris was ``deeply ashamed'' of her actions.

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.

Sentencing was adjourned by judge Michael Lawson QC for psychiatric reports but Mr Power said the starting point for sentencing of Harris, of Gildredge in Whitesmith, near Lewes, would be four years in jail.

Harris, clutching a Karen Millen handbag and wearing a grey skirt, was released on conditional bail until sentencing on January 27.