A County Mayo solicitor must be struck off for professional misconduct in allowing a €169,000 deficit build up on her client account, a judge ruled.
Kathleen Doocey’s misconduct was “extremely serious” and at “the uppermost end of the scale of seriousness” High Court president Ms Justice Mary Irvine said today.
A strike-off order was the “only appropriate sanction” to maintain the reputation of the solicitor profession, mark the court’s strong disapproval of such conduct, discourage others who might be tempted to emulate it and protect the public, she held.
It is a “cardinal and basic” rule that solicitors must never touch clients’ monies, but Ms Doocey repeatedly breached that rule and dishonestly sought to cover her tracks until she was caught by her own professional body.
“Someone capable of such systematic dishonesty is clearly not someone who can be trusted to the ends of the earth by her clients.”
Judge Irvine was giving judgment on an application by the Law Society for strike-off orders against Ms Doocey, who practices at KM Doocey Solicitors in Belmullet.
After an inspection by the Society of the accounts of the practice, Ms Doocey made admissions at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in July 2019 in relation to allegations of misconduct.
The admissions included allowing a €169,000 deficit build up on her client account at the end of 2017, as well as moving funds between client and business accounts and between client ledgers to conceal shortfalls as they arose.
That teeming and ladling process is commonly known as ‘borrowing from Peter to pay Paul’.
In January 2020, the tribunal heard evidence about measures put in place in the practice to ensure compliance with the Solicitors Accounts Regulations. Those included two accountants and another solicitor acting in a supervisory capacity and Ms Doocey having no control over access to client funds.
The tribunal recommended, rather than a strike-off order, her practising certificate be made subject to conditions. It took into account that her conduct had not resulted in any financial loss for clients, while a cyber attack on a client’s account caused a €50,000 loss to her practice.
Ms Justice Irvine noted that the Society urged the harsher sanction of strike-off on the grounds Ms Doocey was not a fit person to be on the roll of solicitors.
In opposing strike-off, it was argued on behalf of Ms Doocey that no client was at a loss as a result of her actions. It was also argued, on her behalf, that the deficit on the client account had been cleared with the assistance of loans from members of her family and there was no dishonesty on her part.
Ms Justice Irvine found a strike-off order was necessary to mark, in the strongest terms, the court’s disapproval of Ms Doocey’s failure to adhere to the standards of honesty and integrity expected of solicitors.
This case involved “systematic, extensive and deliberate” teeming and ladling with a view to disguising a deficit of €169,152 in her client account of December 31 2017.
Final orders will be made in two weeks.