A solicitor and suspended coroner who denies stealing £185,000 from the estates of clients told a court yesterday he was incompetent but he was not a thief.

Jeremy Cave, 52, coroner for the western district of North Yorkshire, has pleaded not guilty to ten charges of theft of sums between £3,000 and £76,000 from the beneficiaries of five women and five men between 1990 and 2000.

At Teesside Crown Court, Mr Cave, of The Grange, Balk, near Thirsk, was questioned about levying additional charges on wills without the knowledge of executors.

He told Andrew Wheeler, prosecuting, that he could not justify it, and in some cases he could not remember doing it. He said he could not give an explanation but he thought his charges were fair.

Mr Wheeler listed examples where Mr Cave's files contained an Agreed Costs slip for £700 plus VAT. Executors said no costs had been agreed and they knew nothing about fees.

Mr Cave said about one file: "I don't remember these bills being done. They were done by me, I can only say that I cannot believe that Agreed Costs slips would have been used unless they were correct.

"Two executors say that they had not agreed them, but I can't believe they would be billed unless they had been agreed. I know there's no evidence on the file that I got the consent of the executors, but I must have done."

He added: "I have had more than two-and- a-half years to consider these matters and come up with plausible explanations for them, and I don't have an explanation for this and I am not going to concoct one."

Mr Wheeler claimed Mr Cave had had to cover his tracks when he was caught out, but Mr Cave, who had been studying one of his ledgers in the witness box, replied: "No there was nothing to catch out except my incompetence."

The case continues.