Solicitor must be struck off over ‘extremely serious’ misconduct, court rules
Kathleen Doocey allowed €169,000 deficit to build on client account
Solicitor Kathleen Doocey’s misconduct was “extremely serious” and at “the uppermost end of the scale of seriousness” High Court president Ms Justice Mary Irvine said on Monday.
A Co Mayo solicitor must be struck off for professional misconduct in allowing a €169,000 deficit to build up on her client account and engaging in improper transactions involving “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul”, the High Court has ruled.
Kathleen Doocey’s misconduct was “extremely serious” and at “the uppermost end of the scale of seriousness” High Court president Ms Justice Mary Irvine said on Monday.
A strike-off order was the “only appropriate sanction” to maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession, mark the court’s strong disapproval of such conduct, discourage others who might be tempted to emulate it and protect the public, she held.
It is a “cardinal and basic” rule solicitors must never touch clients’ monies but Ms Doocey repeatedly breached that rule and dishonestly sought to cover her tracks until she was caught by her own professional body.
“Someone capable of such systematic dishonesty is clearly not someone who can be trusted to the ends of the earth by her clients.”
She was giving judgment on an application by Nessa Bird, for the Law Society, for strike-off orders against Ms Doocey, who practises as KM Doocey Solicitors in Belmullet.
After an inspection by the society of the accounts of the practice, Ms Doocey made admissions at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in July 2019 in relation to allegations of misconduct, including allowing a €169,000 deficit to build up on her client account at end 2017 and moving funds between client and business accounts and between client ledgers to conceal shortfalls as they arose.
That teeming and lading process is commonly known as “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul”, Ms Justice Irvine said.
In January 2020, the tribunal heard evidence about measures put in place in the practice to ensure compliance with the Solicitors Accounts Regulations. Those included two accountants and another solicitor acting in a supervisory capacity and Ms Doocey having no control over access to client funds.
The tribunal recommended, rather than a strike-off order, her practising certificate be made subject to conditions. It took into account her conduct had not resulted in any financial loss for clients and a cyber attack on a client’s account caused a €50,000 loss to her practice.
Ms Justice Irvine noted the society urged the harsher sanction of strike off on grounds Ms Doocey was not a fit person to be on the roll of solicitors on grounds of the extent of the financial irregularities in her accounts.
In opposing strike off, it was argued on behalf of Ms Doocey no client was at a loss as a result of her actions, the deficit on the client account had been cleared with the assistance of loans from members of her family and there was no dishonesty on her part.
Ms Justice Irvine found a strike-off order was necessary to mark, in the strongest terms, the court’s disapproval of Ms Doocey’s failure to adhere to the standards of honesty and integrity expected of solicitors.
This case involved “systematic, extensive and deliberate” teeming and lading with a view to disguising a deficit of €169,152 in her client account of December 31st, 2017.
She did not accept Ms Doocey should not be portrayed as dishonest and the court should consider her as a solicitor who has served her clients well as none of them suffered financial loss as a result of her actions. If all her clients had sought to wind up their business with her at the same time, she would not have been in a position to pay them and was only able to practise as a solicitor “by continually borrowing from Peter to pay Paul”, she said.
There is no knowing how long Ms Doocey would have continued with this practice had she not been caught, and how large the deficit might have become, were it not for the involvement of the society, she said.
Submissions that Ms Doocey was a relatively inexperienced solicitor whose lack of training and ignorance were causative of her conduct “ring hollow”, for reasons including her professional training and previous engagement with the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, she said. Her approach demonstrated a complete lack of understanding concerning her obligations to her clients, profession and the administration of justice.
The “inescapable conclusion” was she had personally gained at her clients’ expense, regardless whether or not the monies were drawn by her as fees or used to discharge the expense of her practice. The deficit was only erased due to borrowing from family.
The court was also concerned Ms Doocey has never yet made an income tax return and is in arrears with all VAT payable for 2017, 2018 and 2019, she added.
Final orders will be made in two weeks.