The Law Society has defended its handling of the Thomas Byrne case after the former solicitor was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the largest white-collar crime ever to come before the courts.
Judge Patrick McCartan said Byrne (47), of Mountjoy Square in Dublin, had engaged in “colossal wrongdoing” by stealing €52 million from banks and defrauding 13 clients out of homes or money. He imposed a term of 16 years, with the final four suspended in light of Byrne’s personal circumstances and to give him some hope for the future.
The Law Society, which represents and regulates the legal profession, described Byrne’s crimes as “disgraceful and abhorrent” and said it had paid €7.2 million to cover the legal fees of the ex-solicitor’s victims.
But the society was challenged by some of those victims, who feel aggrieved that they were not compensated for losses – of more than €200,000 in some cases – they incurred as a result of their properties being tied up in the courts.
Paul Costigan, whose mother-in-law's house was fraudulently transferred to Byrne's name in 2007, said: "As far as we're concerned, they [the Law Society] make the rules. It's their game, and it seems to be a bit of a closed shop."
The society said its compensation fund was a statutory scheme that by law could not pay out for consequential loss. It rejected a call for it to apologise, saying the crimes were committed by Byrne and that it took the society just two working days to shut down the practice after a solicitor in Byrne’s practice first raised the alarm.
Judge McCartan said Byrne's actions were worse because he was a solicitor. It was unknown what damage he had done to the profession "but it must be considerable".
Byrne appeared before the solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal in 2006 after an investigation found a deficit of €1.7 million in his client account. It found him guilty of misconduct and fined him €15,000, but did not recommend he be struck off.
Asked whether it should have detected Byrne’s crimes before October 2007, the Law Society said its accountants did investigate Byrne’s practice but there was no evidence of fraudulent multiple mortgaging.
It said that since discovering Byrne’s crimes, the society had taken steps to strengthen its regulations to make it more difficult for crimes like these to be committed. But it added that the type of fraudulent transfers committed by Byrne were “almost impossible to discover” in the absence of a complaint.