High Court freezes law firm's bank accounts


THE HIGH Court has ordered the bank accounts of a Dublin law firm to be frozen after a deficit of €240,000 was discovered in the company’s client account.

The Law Society sought the freezing orders after its fitness-to-practise committee concluded there had been “dishonesty” in relation to the operation of the company client account of James Maher Co Solicitors, Bookend Street, Essex Quay, Dublin.

The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, was told yesterday the deficit arose after money from the client account was advanced by a partner in the firm, James J Maher, to a third party who had told the firm he was due some €28 million for work done on oil pipelines in Nigeria.

The judge made an order suspending Mr Maher from practising. The court heard Mr Maher had admitted the wrongdoing, which he concealed from solicitor Catherine J Murnaghan, his wife and partner in the firm.

Ms Murnaghan had nothing to do with her husband’s actions, the court heard. She has undertaken to the court not to practise as a solicitor for a period of two weeks.

On application of Paul Anthony McDermott, for the society, the judge granted orders freezing the bank accounts held in the names of the firm and the two solicitors.

In its application, the society said that between April and September this year the firm had written 40 cheques to the third party, a man who had represented himself as an architect.

Mr Maher had said the man, believed to be an Irish national from north Co Dublin, informed him he was due a payment of €28 million from the National Petroleum Corporation of Nigeria for work on pipelines in Nigeria. The man was to lodge this in the firm’s client account once the funds had obtained money laundering and terrorist clearances.

Mr Maher said he had conversations with parties in Nigeria including the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, the president of the Nigerian Senate and the official in the Nigerian department of finance with responsibility for the disbursement of money as payment for infrastructure projects.

Mr Maher said the parties all confirmed the man would work on other infrastructural projects in Nigeria, after which he advanced him money from the client account. No money was received from Nigeria, however, and it appeared the third party may not be registered as an architect.

Suzanne Boylan, for Mr Maher, said his health had suffered as a result of what happened and he is currently in hospital. He had consented to the making of orders against him. Mr Maher had 35 acres of land which he was prepared to put forward as repayment for the funds, she added.

Gabriel Gavigan SC, for Ms Murnaghan, said she had done nothing wrong. She had given undertakings in order to consider whether she is to continue to practise on her own or will have to practise under the supervision of another experienced solicitor.

In an affidavit, Ms Murnaghan said she was “unaware of the payments made” to the third party. She was “completely shocked” and “astonished” to learn funds were missing from the client account and had fears for both her own reputation and that of the firm.