New solicitors can restore values that ‘slipped’ in profession, says AG

Small number of solicitors lowered standards during recession, says Séamus Woulfe

President Michael D Higgins with Attorney General Séamus Woulfe last year. Mr Woulfe was addressing a graduation ceremony in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dave Meehan

President Michael D Higgins with Attorney General Séamus Woulfe last year. Mr Woulfe was addressing a graduation ceremony in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

Young solicitors can help restore values in their profession that slipped during the recession, the Attorney General Séamus Woulfe told a graduation ceremony on Wednesday.

In an address at Blackhall Place in Dublin, Mr Woulfe SC said a small minority of solicitors had lowered the standards that had existed for years in the profession, partly due to the pressures of the economic crash.

He said it was a great privilege to be a solicitor but it also came with a great responsibility to be honest.

“That means you can’t dip into clients’ funds even if you think you are just doing it for a temporary loan and you really intend to pay it back next week,” he said.

Mr Woulfe said he wanted to emphasise that it was a small minority who had lowered standards during the “terrible period your country went through over the past 10 years”.

Those now graduating were lucky in that they were starting out in a new period where “you can restore those values that slipped” during the difficulties of recent years, he said.

The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, said the “most unpleasant” of his duties as president of the High Court was disciplining solicitors and members of other professions.

Misery

There was “no greater contrast between the joy” of a graduation ceremony and “the misery that plays out in Court Number Four every Monday afternoon when I have to exercise those [disciplinary] functions over solicitors and other professions.”

Mr Justice Kelly oversees disciplinary matters involving solicitors, the medical profession, nurses, radiographers, social workers and teachers.

“Dipping into client funds that are not yours and misusing them is a form of dishonesty that strikes at the very heart of the solicitor’s profession,” Mr Justice Kelly said.

He said not many solicitors did so because they wanted to “live high on the hog”. It was more often because they were under pressure for health reasons, or family reasons or because of an addiction problem.

He said addiction problems could be associated with alcohol or drugs but also with gambling, which was “a real problem that I see on a regular basis”.

Temptation

For a solicitor with control of client money, the temptation was ever present and it was never as easy as it is now to feed a gambling addiction, he said.

“With a click of a mouse you can transfer funds from a client account to a betting account.”

Mr Justice Kelly said it was not just a problem with solicitors as he had recently dealt with a case where a pharmacist had effectively embezzled hundreds of thousands of euro of his employer’s funds.

He said he wanted to wish the graduates well and that they enjoy their careers half as much as he had enjoyed “a lifetime in law”.

He also wanted to wish that the graduates never again had to meet the president of the High Court, “and certainly not on a Monday afternoon”.