independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Law Society won't compensate victims of rogue solicitor

Byrne gets 12 years but his former clients are left out of pocket

Thomas Byrne was found guilty of the theft and fraud of almost €52m at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court; and, inset, one of the rogue solicitor’s victims Vera McGrane

CLIENTS of jailed ex-solicitor Thomas Byrne will not be compensated, despite hundreds of thousands of euro being wiped off the value of their homes.

Last night, the separated father of three began a 12-year jail term after he was convicted of stealing €52m from banks and defrauding 13 clients, including serving gardai, out of their houses or money.

And as he began his sentence, he told the Irish Independent that he had "faced up to the consequences" of his actions.

Clients, including school friends and the families of elderly women who trusted the former solicitor, saw the value of their properties collapse by as much as 50pc after they discovered the deeds were no longer in their names.

Many suffered significant financial losses when the properties were sold after years of legal actions to rectify the deeds.

But the Law Society, the ruling body for solicitors, says it cannot compensate Byrne's clients as it is legally barred from paying out monies to clients who have suffered consequential losses.

A consequential loss is the cost to the client as a result of a problem with services or goods, in this case their properties.

Although the deeds were not in the clients' names, they cannot sue for the subsequent drop in value of the homes as this is a consequential rather than a direct loss.

Last night, the Law Society defended its handling of Byrne's legal practice, saying that the October 2007 closure of his Dublin law firm was "the fastest ever closure of a solicitor's practice".

"The solicitor profession views Byrne's crimes as disgraceful and abhorrent," said Ken Murphy, director general of the society.

Byrne (47) was sentenced by Judge Patrick McCartan following a 27-day trial. It was the largest theft case to come before the courts in the history of the State.

Judge McCartan imposed a term of nine years for Byrne's thefts from the banks and seven years for forging his employee's signature as part of the fraud.

He imposed five years on the remaining forgery counts involving the deeds to his clients' houses.

He ordered that the nine- and seven-year terms run consecutively in light of "the nature, scale, considerable skill, cunning and fraud" involved in the offences.

The judge suspended the final four years of the 16-year term in light of Byrne's "personal circumstances" and to give him some hope for the future.

Judge McCartan wished him good luck as he was led away to begin his term.

In his sentencing comments, the judge praised the bravery of Byrne's former employee, solicitor Barbara Cooney, who was the whistleblower who brought Byrne's fraud to the attention of the Law Society after discovering he had forged her signature on a document.

Judge McCartan said Ms Cooney had the courage to go to the society even after Byrne and his former business partner, John Kelly, tried to stop her.

Judge McCartan said Byrne had engaged in "colossal wrongdoing" which was made worse because he was a solicitor who was invested with status and the trust of society. The judge said it was unknown what damage he had done to the reputation of the profession, "but it must be considerable".

The judge also took into account "the staggering amounts of money" and the fact that the thefts required careful planning and execution.

'PORTFOLIO'

He also rejected Byrne's claims that he gained no benefit from the fraud. He said that Byrne had "amassed a considerable portfolio" of between 40 and 50 properties which were in his own name.

Byrne (47), of Mountjoy Square, Dublin, was accused of theft and fraud offences totalling €51.8m.

The charges alleged Byrne transferred clients' homes into his name and then used them as collateral for property loans. He is also accused of using invalid collateral to fraudulently borrow millions from six financial institutions.

He had pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to 50 counts of theft, forgery, using forged documents and deception between 2004 and 2007.

The case comprised two distinct parts.

The first module dealt with how Byrne signed his clients' homes into his own name without their knowledge using forged signatures.

The second module detailed how Byrne used the same properties as collateral with different financial institutions to borrow €51.8m.

These offences involved Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide Building Society, KBC, Bank of Scotland Ireland, National Irish Bank and EBS.

During a sentencing hearing yesterday, Detective Sergeant Paschal Walsh said that when the fraud came to light, Byrne's victims received no compensation other than having their legal fees paid by the Law Society.

He said that with regard to the banks who loaned over €50m to Byrne, only Anglo Irish Bank got its money back.

The Fraud Squad began investigating Byrne after receiving complaints from clients, banks and the High Court.

Defence counsel Damien Colgan pointed out that Byrne had no previous convictions.

Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Editor

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