High Court president strikes off solicitor who admitted dishonesty and misconduct

A Co Donegal solicitor who admitted dishonesty and professional misconduct has been struck off the roll of solicitors by the president of the High Court.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly was told it is "very uncertain" at this stage whether the Law Society's compensation fund will have to reimburse clients of Moya O'Donnell’s practice.

If all claims are paid out, there could be a deficit of some €450,000 but the picture is "very uncertain" and claims are still being processed, Nessa Bird BL, for the Society said. A number of claims had been refused, she noted.

Sean Sexton, a solicitor representing Ms O'Donnell, said monies from the estate of her late husband David Madden, who died in tragic circumstances just before Christmas 2017, will become available to go towards meeting at least some of any deficit established.

Because of the tragic circumstances of his death, there are issues concerning life policies, Mr Sexton added.

Mr Justice Kelly said, given the dishonesty involved, the Society and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) had no choice but to seek a strike off order and the court had to make that order.

He reduced the legal costs by some €7,000 after noting, arising from her husband's death, Ms O'Donnell is a lone parent of four children with no means of livelihood as a solicitor.

In his ruling, he said, it had to be said, when confronted with "multiple claims of wrongdoing", Ms O'Donnell had admitted those and admitted they constituted professional misconduct.

It was clear from the report of the SDT there were multiple findings of dishonesty against her, including permitting multiple deficits on the client account over a period dating back to January 2011 and up to September 2017.

Other findings included attempting to conceal the deficit by using false entries on the books to conceal the true destination of the payment and using false documents in a bid to avoid detection.

The SDT findings were of "very serious" dishonesty on her part, he said.

It was not entirely certain whether the Society’s compensation fund would have to make good some of the losses and there might be sufficient assets from her late husband’s estate to reimburse any clients who required to be reimbursed, he said.

It was "at least possible" the fund will be responsible for any shortfall but, even if not, the findings were of such grave dishonesty over a long period the only possible order was a strike off, he said.

During the SDT hearing, the Tribunal was told a Law Society investigation had found Ms O'Doherty diverted substantial client funds into her personal bank accounts, including sums left in a will to charity and a priest.

Law Society investigators also found evidence of "teeming and ladling" - using one client's monies to discharge the liabilities of another with the deficits later being cleared from other client funds coming in.

Ms O'Donnell had been suspended from practising as a solicitor by the court and her firm in Killybegs and Glenties has closed.

Her solicitor, Mr Sexton, told the SDT she was admitting the allegations and misconduct and accepted she was "going to face the ultimate sanction" of being struck off but intended to make every effort to reimburse any shortfall on her client account.

Her husband had taken over the running of the practice while it was being closed down but died in tragic circumstances shortly before Christmas 2017.

The SDT heard he had not had any prior knowledge or involvement in his wife's actions.

Mr Sexton also said a medical report showed Ms O'Donnell was extremely vulnerable and needed a lot of care and support from those around her.

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