‘Small handful’ of solicitors should not cause public to lose trust in profession

High Court president says solicitors have suffered significantly in recession

Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns: the “overwhelming majority of solicitors in this country operate to the highest standards of professional probity and integrity”

The misbehaviour of "a small handful" of solicitors should not lead to any loss of public trust in the profession, the president of the High Court has said.

In remarks from the bench while presiding over solicitors' disciplinary cases this week, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns said it was important to remember solicitors had suffered significantly in the recession and predicted they would emerge strengthened from "these difficult times".

His comments come amid criticism of the Law Society, the body that oversees solicitors, in the wake of the conviction of former solicitor Thomas Byrne for fraud and theft offences totalling almost €52 million. Questions have been raised about the society's failure to detect Byrne's fraud, while some of his victims have criticised the society for not compensating them for losses they incurred on properties being tied up in the courts for years.

Mr Justice Kearns, who ultimately decides on sanctions to be imposed on solicitors in cases where the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal finds proof of misconduct, said the short list before him on Monday illustrated that cases of professional misconduct were few and far between.


'Highest standards'
"In view of the widespread publicity given to a number of historic cases from the Celtic Tiger era, it is important to emphasise that the vast and overwhelming majority of solicitors in this country operate to the highest standards of professional probity and integrity," he said.

Mr Justice Kearns said the misbehaviour of “a small handful” of solicitors should not lead to any loss of trust in the profession, adding it had a long history of providing “professional services of excellent standard” to the public.

He said it was important to remember that solicitors, like all other sectors of society, had “suffered significantly” in the recession and that there were high levels of unemployment in their ranks.

“Quite apart from reduced incomes arising from the economic turndown, it falls to solicitors themselves to pay for the consequences of the misbehaviour of their own colleagues,” he said. “They do so by contributing to the compensation fund which exists to protect clients where funds entrusted by them to solicitors are misappropriated.”

Spiralling premiums
Mr Justice Kearns said many solicitors were further penalised by having to pay much larger premiums for their day-to-day operational insurance cover.

He added: “I believe the solicitors’ profession will emerge with strength from these difficult times – helped in that regard by strict and effective policing by the Law Society to ensure that the highest standards of the profession are always maintained.”

The Law Society has so far paid out €7.2 million to compensate clients for money stolen by Byrne and legal fees they incurred in reversing his fraud. However, it has said it cannot compensate them for “consequential loss”, which includes money lost due to the collapse of property prices.

Byrne appeared before the solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal in 2006 after a Law Society investigation found a deficit of €1.7 million in his client account. The tribunal found him guilty of misconduct and fined him €15,000 but did not recommend that he be struck off.

In the 12 months to August this year, eight solicitors were struck off the register, compared to nine the previous year, according to the Law Society’s annual report.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times