Solicitor given four-year suspended jail term over theft from clients
Judge tells Michelle O’Keeffe (56) she had ‘brought shame on yourself but also on your profession’
The thefts were from clients involved in property deals where the solicitor was carrying out the conveyancing work for them.
An Ennis solicitor has escaped jail over stealing €149,830 from 11 clients over a five-year period “in a robbing Peter to pay Paul” enterprise.
At Ennis Circuit Court, Judge Gerald Keys imposed a four-year suspended jail term on Michelle O’Keeffe (56) of Fionn Oir, Lahinch Road, Ennis after commenting that “you brought shame on yourself but also on your profession”.
The judge said she deceived her clients “and took advantage of the trust that they had in you carrying out their legal transactions”. She “took advantage of her status as a member of the solicitor profession and stole from her clients”.
O’Keeffe’s clients relied on her expertise and trust, he added.
But the judge stated that there were exceptional circumstances in the case that allowed him not to jail O’Keeffe. “It would not be in interests of justice and would not be necessary or desirable to impose an immediate custodial sentence,” he said.
O’Keeffe’s thefts were from clients involved in property deals where she was carrying out the conveyancing work for them.
As a result of a complaint lodged with the Law Society concerning discrepancies in the accounts the Law Society sent in a forensic accountant to examine books at O’Keeffe’s practice in 2012.
Arising from the Law Society investigation, she was brought before a Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal in October 2013 and on foot of its recommendation, the President of the High Court struck her off as a solicitor in January 2014.
The Law Society’s Compensation Fund made recompense to all of her clients in 2012 and she has since fully repaid the Law Society for all of its costs in the case through financial assistance from family members and a partial inheritance.
Stamp duty not paid
In relation to one client, Terence Kelly purchased a property in Ennis in 2006 and engaged the defendant to handle the purchase and paid the stamp duty of €20,580 by way of cheque.
However, he was later contacted by Revenue concerning the non-payment of the stamp duty and the Law Society directed that the accused pay the €20,580 in stamp duty – but she only did this by misappropriating money from another client account.
The judge stated that O’Keeffe has deteriorating physical health and lives an isolated life and avoids leaving her home which he stated is on the verge of being repossessed.
The judge said she was ill-suited to be a sole practitioner and as her counsel had stated had engaged in a “robbing Peter to pay Paul exercise”.
The facts in her favour, he noted, were her early plea of guilty; no previous convictions; she had shown genuine remorse; has fully co-operated and that the victims in the case hold her in high regard and were reluctant to make a complaint to the authorities or provide victim impact evidence.
The judge stated O’Keeffe had made full restitution and there was little or no risk of re-offending.
She is unemployable, he added.