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Family’s campaign after Perth solicitor fined £5k over dad’s death bed deal

The family of wild boar farmer William Johnston want a change in law after lawyer Craig Harvie was found guilty of professional misconduct.

The family of one of Scotland’s most successful wild boar farmers is demanding a law change after he was asked to sign far-reaching legal paperwork while on his death bed.

Perth lawyer Craig Harvie was found guilty of professional misconduct after he visited terminally ill William Johnston at a high dependency hospital unit and secured his signature on a reworked contract which diverted life insurance money to Mr Johnston’s business partner.

Mr Harvie, director of Inveralmond-based Eden Legal Ltd, was fined £5,000 following a Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline tribunal.

Tribunal vice-chairman said Mr Harvie’s actions “lacked integrity” but it was stressed during proceedings there was no suggestion of “dishonesty, deceit or even recklessness”.

Mr Johnston’s three children are now campaigning for “Willie’s Law” to ensure any frail or extremely sick person must get a medical professional to co-sign legal documents to guarantee their capacity.

Signed revised contract in hospital bed

Mr Johnston, who lived and worked at Hilton Farm, Craigend, was 60 when he died in Perth Royal Infirmary on January 19 2020.

Just 20 days earlier – December 30 2019 – Mr Harvie and Mr Johnston’s business partner – his cousin Andrew Johnston – attended at his bedside, where he signed a revised contract regarding the future of the farm.

Perth farmer William Johnston.

It effectively meant Andrew Johnston would receive £750,000 of life insurance money, which he could use to buy his cousin’s 50% share in the farm estate.

The original agreement – which Andrew Johnston said was made in error – would have given life insurance cash to the partnership organisation rather than an individual member.

There were concerns that this would mean the farm, which had been in the family for nearly a century, would have to be sold.

But William Johnston’s family say the move, which meant their father effectively giving up more than £400,000, devalued the property and is now costing them hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees.

‘Shocked’ by legal move

Laura Johnston-Brand who, with sister Karen Lee reported the matter to the Law Society of Scotland, told The Courier: “Our father was in a high dependency unit, breathing oxygen through a face mask.

“We all knew it was his final days.”

She said: “Yet even in his condition, a solicitor was able to put important documents under his nose for him to sign.

“We were shocked to learn that he was legally able to do such a thing.

Farmer William Johnston was well known for production of wild boar.

“We heard during the tribunal that this was perfectly legitimate in Scotland but not in England.

“That’s why we are campaigning – we don’t want this happening to anyone else.”

She said: “My father was devastated when he found out what he had signed.

“He was bawling his eyes out.

“It consumed his final moments and the little time we had with him.”

The daughters and son Christopher have now launched a Facebook page to seek support for “Willie’s Law” and share a petition.

No memory of meeting

After the document-signing, Mr Harvie returned to Mr Johnston’s hospital bed on January 11 2020, the tribunal heard.

Mr Johnston told him he had no memory of the December 30 meeting.

He said he would not have agreed to change the insurance policy or make other changes, including freezing the level of his capital account.

In his findings, tribunal vice-chairman Ben Kemp wrote: “His (Mr Johnston’s) wish was that the variation to the agreement was not followed through with, or any changes made, at which point he made a cutting gesture with his hands leaving (Mr Harvie) satisfied that he had a very clear view on the matter.”

When Mr Harvie asked him about the insurance policy, Mr Johnston replied: “Why would I give up £350,000?”

Mr Harvie then claimed a conflict of interest and said he could no longer continue to advise Mr Johnston, who died eight days later.

Medical state in final days

A report from his primary consultant said in the final days of December 2019 “he was so physically debilitated that it would be clear, even to a lay individual that he was critically ill.”

The same consultant confirmed the medical team received no request from Mr Harvie to assess Mr Johnston’s capacity.

Perth Royal Infirmary staff who were present on December 30 also said they had concerns about Mr Johnston’s state, although the tribunal heard no medical evidence about his lack of capacity.

They described Mr Harvie as “abrupt”.

At the tribunal, fiscal Breck Stewart – representing the Law Society – said Mr Harvie had “allowed his desire to help this partnership keep running to blind him to the interests of Bill (Mr Johnston)… and the consequences were that Bill was giving up more than £400,000.”

Mr Stewart stressed there was no suggestion of “dishonesty, deceit or even recklessness” by Mr Harvie, who was further described as a “well-respected solicitor” with no previous conduct issues.

Solicitor William Macreath, defending, said Mr Harvie was trying to “do the right thing by everyone,” but should have “stepped away” and told the cousins to try independent agents when Mr Johnston told him on December 23 that he needed to think things through.

“However, (Mr Harvie) was faced with a dilemma and time was of the essence.

“He was reluctant to abandon them.”

Mr Harvie was found guilty of six counts of misconduct.

Hilton Farm, near Perth

In his findings, published this week, Mr Kemp wrote: “His actions lack integrity in that he took instructions from Andrew to significantly reduce Bill’s interest in the partnership, drafted a version of the partnership agreement without taking instructions from Bill and met with Bill… when it was plain he was a vulnerable client.”

Mr Kemp, who stressed there was “no question of any lack of honesty or deceit” added: “The effect of altering the partnership agreement, reducing Bill’s interest in excess of £425,000, including altering the basis of the valuation of the partnership on the death of Bill, was all to benefit of Andrew from whom he took instructions.”

The family is now pursuing further civil action.

A petition calling for Willie’s Law to become a legal fixture in Scotland will go live soon.

Mr Harvie has declined to comment.

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