UK lawyer who stole one million pounds sentenced to six years in jail


LONDON (Reuters) - A lawyer who eluded British justice for almost 10 years by fleeing to South Africa and changing his name was sentenced to six years in prison on Thursday for theft and fraud.

John Fitzpatrick pled guilty in an English court to stealing over 1 million pounds ($1.7 million) from clients and participating in mortgage fraud after being extradited from South Africa by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) last year.

He was charged with seven counts of theft and two charges of obtaining money transfers by deception between 1997 and 2001, having been struck off the Roll of Solicitors in 2002.

Six other people have already been sentenced for the illicit money transfers.

Fitzpatrick helped a broker and his client defraud a mortgage lender in a case involving forged documents and identity theft, but fled England before he could be tried.

The SFO said the former lawyer also stole money from clients while helping them buy and sell homes. One victim was left jobless and homeless while another arrived at the home he had bought to discover that Fitzpatrick had never executed the deal and made off with his money.

Fitzpatrick escaped prosecution by moving to the Krugersdorp area of South Africa, a mining region, and lived under the alias John Cooper, the SFO said. But he was arrested in May 2013 after an extradition request by the SFO and spent over two months in jail before being brought back to England.

The SFO has been criticised for lacking teeth in comparison to its U.S. counterparts. It has struggled to balance the challenges of bringing complex cases while hampered by budget cuts. In 2013 its conviction rate fell to around 71 percent, down from 81 percent in 2010-11.

($1 = 0.5998 British pounds)

(Reporting by Freya Berry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)