Solicitor struck off by High Court

A solicitor who ran up an estimated €500,000 deficit on his client account has been struck off by the High Court.

There was a "depresing familiarity" about the facts of the case of Michael J. O'Neill, who had practised as a sole practitioner at Naas, Co Kildare, the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly said.

While it was in Mr O'Neill's favour that he made admissions and sold his family home to partly reduce the deficit, leading to that being cut to €350,000, this was "yet another case where a solicitor had failed to observe that client funds are precisely that".

While Mr O'Neill had not sought to evade his repsonsibility, that was "not much comfort" for anyone who suffered losses which the Law Society Compensation Fund was likely to be liable for, the judge said.

Mr O'Neill's admissions did not compensate for the serious misconduct of a solicitor "dipping into client funds" and using them for purpose for which they never designed.

In the circumstances, the judge said he must grant the application by solicitor Mary Fenelon, for the Law Society, for the striking off order and noted Mr O'Neill was consenting to that.

Sean Sexton, a solicitor representing Mr O'Neill, said he had firm instructions to consent to the strike off order. Mr O'Neill had sold his family home and was still trying to recover monies to reduce the compensation that would have to be paid to clients, Mr Sexton added

Ms Fenelon said the application arose after the €500,000 deficit was identified on Mr O'Neill's client account at the end of May 2014. Mr O'Neill had made good about €150,000 of that and hoped to achieve further reductions but there would be a substantial shortfall and a substantial compensation claim was pending before the Compensation Fund, she said.

There were no true books of account in the practice and the shortfall occurred because there were about 207 fee transfers over a two year period in round figure sums, she said. There were no fee notes or documents on the file, as required by solicitor account regulations, to support those transfers.

Mr O'Neill later sold his family hoem and his wife co-operated in that sale but was entitled to her share, Ms Fenelon said. The practice was "well closed at this stage", she added.

Mr Justice Kelly said Mr O'Neill had enrolled as a solicitor in 1974 and the strike off application arose after he was found guilty by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal of professional misconduct for reasons including the €500,000 deficit on his client account and making transfers on that account purportedly as fees but without posting fee notes.

Whe he appeared before SDT, he admitted the wrongdoings and said he was throwing himself on its mercy, the judge said.

In addition to the strike off order, the judge made orders striking out earlier proceedings initiated in 2014 arising from the deficit.

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