One evening in October 2007, Paul Costigan was driving home on the Galway-Dublin road when he heard a familiar name on a radio news bulletin. He listened as the report explained that a Walkinstown solicitor's practice, Thomas Byrne & Co, had been shut down by the Law Society earlier that day and that an investigation had begun into claims about the firm.
“I rang my wife Aideen and said, ‘Listen, did you hear about Thomas Byrne?’”
Aideen had known Byrne since they were children. Her mother, Josephine O’Donnell, had given him piano lessons, and they grew up not far from each other in Walkinstown.
Josephine O’Donnell regarded Byrne as a friend, according to Aideen, so when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004 and told she had six weeks to live, she insisted on Byrne being involved when she drew up her will and left her home on Bunting Road to her five children.
“Her mother was proud that she was going to leave them something,” Mr Costigan recalls. Confounding the prognosis, Ms O’Donnell lived for another year and a half.
A few months after she died in May 2006, Byrne contacted Aideen and said he had a client who was interested in buying the house. The family did not wish to sell at that point, but when they later put the house on the market, in 2007, it wasn’t long before a prospective buyer surfaced with an offer of €420,000.
When Byrne heard about this, he told the Costigans his client was prepared to raise his offer to €430,000. He didn't mention the buyer's name, but said the sale would be completed within four weeks. They accepted. And within a few weeks, Byrne's firm had been shut down.
What the Costigans discovered, on contacting the land registry, was that the house on Bunting Road had purportedly been transferred to Byrne’s name on July 1st for €410,000 – and they hadn’t received a single cent.
During Byrne’s trial, the prosecution showed that the then-solicitor had switched the house to his name by forging Aideen’s signature on official documents and then used it as collateral to extract a huge loan from the bank.
It was a pattern that was repeated several times; by October 2007, Byrne had obtained almost €52 million using properties that weren’t his as security.
“It was betrayal,” Mr Costigan says of Byrne’s actions. “Aideen’s mother put great store in him – that he’d grown up in Walkinstown, local boy come good, big practice at the top of the road. He was always very nice to her mother . . . We couldn’t believe he’d do such a thing.”
“Horror” is how Aideen describes her first reaction.
For the Costigans and their extended family, the collapse of Byrne’s house of cards set in motion a long, stressful – and ultimately very expensive – saga that would preoccupy them for the next five years. Yesterday that saga came to an end, but the process and the outcome leave them feeling sore.
For one, the trial was a more traumatic experience than they had expected. Having thought they would simply be asked to recount the outline of events as they had told the fraud squad years before, they instead found themselves fielding detailed questions on the events of five years ago and facing defence claims they felt were outlandish.
In court, Byrne claimed the Costigans had agreed to sell him the house with the understanding that they would not receive the money for a number of months.
“My wife felt she was the one on trial,” Mr Costigan says. “I felt for ‘real’ victims in rape cases and the like. It’s an awful experience to sit there. We were only talking about money.”
After six years, the Costigans say their anger towards Byrne has largely abated, even though Aideen was “shocked” when he refused to acknowledge her in court last month. Now, their ire is directed squarely at the Law Society, the representative group for solicitors, which they believe has serious questions to answer about the Byrne case.
“There has been no acknowledgment that they have any responsibility for what he did,” Mr Costigan says of the Law Society. “As far as we’re concerned, they make the rules, it’s their game, and it seems to be a bit of a closed shop.”
He feels aggrieved that it was only in recent weeks that he and Aideen found out that in 2005, Byrne was brought before the solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal, which fined him over a €1.7 million deficit in his client account.
“If [the Law Society] had informed us clients about his carry on in some shape or form, we wouldn’t be where we are,” he says. “If I was a tax defaulter, my name would be in the paper. There must be some way it can be communicated.”
Tied up in court
More galling still is that the house Josephine O'Donnell left her five children was tied up in the courts for five years, as the family fought to undo the fraudulent transfer.
The result was that the house that attracted an offer of €430,000 in 2007 was sold earlier this year for €190,000 – a loss that the Law Society says it will not cover.
“We had a buyer, and the only reason he walked away was that the house wasn’t in our name and we couldn’t sell it,” Mr Costigan says. “There’s only one person responsible for that: that’s Thomas Byrne.
“At the end of the day, you feel the Law Society should do something. Even a phone call wouldn’t have gone amiss.”