A QUARTER of a million euro was wiped off the value of an elderly woman’s estate after former solicitor Thomas Byrne transferred her house into his name using a forged signature.
Last night, a couple broke their silence to speak of their horror and distress after they discovered that a family home had been transferred to Byrne, who is facing up to 20 years in prison following the biggest white-collar criminal trial in the history of the State.
Aideen Costigan, whose mother Josephine O’Donnell died in 2006, said a five-year legal battle to remove Byrne’s name from the deeds of her late mother’s home resulted in a €250,000 loss for her and her siblings.
Mrs O’Donnell taught Byrne piano when he was a teenager and the elderly woman regarded him as a ‘trusted’ friend.
Byrne, who stole almost €52m from friends, clients, serving gardai and six banks, attended Mrs O’Donnell’s funeral before ‘selling’ her home to himself without her family’s knowledge.
Mrs Costigan and her husband Paul Costigan had an offer for Mrs O’Donnell’s house in September 2007 for €410,000, just weeks before the Law Society shut Byrne’s practice down.
In November 2007, another buyer offered €440,000 for the home but the property could not be sold because the title deeds were in Byrne’s name.
The house was finally sold last January for €190,000 a loss of €250,000 from its peak value after Byrne’s name had been removed from the title deeds.
Last night, the Costigans said they were "shocked" to learn that Byrne had appeared before the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal in 2006 after a Law Society investigation had found a deficit of €1.7m in his client account.
The tribunal found him guilty of misconduct and fined him €15,000 but did not recommend that he be struck off.
"Whilst we are not legal people, we find it difficult to understand why the Law Society did not advise Thomas Byrne’s clients about his misconduct and about the fines imposed on him," said Aideen Costigan.
"If they had done so, we would have been alerted to his dishonesty and would have acted in accordance with that knowledge. Instead, they let him loose on his innocent clients and as a direct result of this we have suffered significant loss."
The Law Society covered the Costigans’ legal fees for the deed-transfer action, but the family say they have been told they can not be compensated for the consequential loss as a result of the five-year delay.
Last night, Ken Murphy, director-general of the society, said its compensation fund "is designed primarily to compensate (clients) for loss arising as a result of misappropriation of money or property entrusted by the client to the solicitor arising from that solicitor’s practice as a solicitor.
"The statutory scheme excludes compensation for consequential loss. The Law Society in this context has a role similar to that of a trustee and is not allowed to make payments outside the scope of the scheme."
In his evidence, Byrne said he was under "constant monitoring" by the society from 2004 and that it had an accountant based in his practice for two years before it was shut down. The Law Society denied that it had an accountant in Byrne's office for lengthy periods. "Any claim by Byrne that this happened is wholly untrue and it is surprising that any credence should be given to such a claim, given the rejection of Byrne's evidence by a jury," said Mr Murphy, adding that it had no valid legal grounds on which it could apply to the High Court for an order to close his practice until October 2007.
During his trial, Byrne denied that he forged the signature of Aideen Costigan to transfer her family home into his name without her knowledge.
Byrne will be sentenced on December 2.