independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Two solicitors found guilty of eight charges

But pair avoid being struck off

Solicitors Sean Acton, left, and Michael McDarby leave the Disciplinary Tribunal

The Law Society has failed in its bid to have struck off two solicitors who were accused of overcharging scores of accident victims through a "sophisticated" fees scam.

The men, who have a large personal injuries' practice in Mayo, avoided being struck off, despite repeated pleas by the Law Society that they were not fit to practise after "driving a horse and cart" through solicitors' regulations.

Yesterday the Solicitor's Disciplinary Tribunal denied a request by the Law Society to recommend to the High Court that Sean Acton and Michael McDarby be struck off.

Instead the men, who admitted obstructing the Law Society's investigation of their practice, were found guilty of eight charges of professional misconduct and fined €25,000 each.

News of the latest censure of solicitors comes weeks before the Law Society challenges a disciplinary tribunal finding against two prominent Dublin solicitors involved in an alleged multi-million euro accounting fraud. Only two weeks ago the Irish Independent revealed that Dublin solicitor Niall Colfer stole some €800,000 of clients' funds, the latest in a series of cases that has shocked the legal community, which is still reeling from the Michael Lynn and Thomas Byrne scandals.

The Law Society, the ruling body for solicitors, has no power to strike solicitors off and can only make representations to have solicitors removed after handing over their investigations to the independent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

Criticised

The tribunal has been criticised for failing to recommend that solicitor Thomas Byrne be struck off after running up a €1.7m deficit in his client account. Mr Byrne is being investigated by the garda fraud squad.

Sean Acton and Michael McDarby stood accused of levying a 10pc fee on personal injuries clients despite the fact that their legal costs were already covered by insurance companies.

The tribunal heard that the two solicitors set up "special accounts" at Ulster Bank in Ballinrobe into which the 10pc of the victims' payouts were placed. The Law Society claimed that one cheque, accounting for 90pc of the litigation payout, went to the client and that the other cheque, accounting for the 10pc, went into the Ulster Bank account.

The ruling body, which investigated the men's practice over a two-year period, claimed that in the majority of case files examined its accountants revealed that two cheques were made out in the names of victims. But this claim could not be fully substantiated as the accounts were in the names of clients and could not be accessed by the Law Society.

Counsel for the Law Society, Paul Anthony McDermott, said the separate accounts meant the operation had "an extra layer of sophistication" and the two lawyers "drove a horse and cart through law society regulations".

It was alleged that these accounts were controlled by the solicitors -- which Sean Sexton for Mr Acton and Mr McDarby said was used to draw funds to pay third parties involved in any injury claim, such as engineers.

Yesterday Mr Acton and Mr McDarby pleaded guilty to six of the nine charges against them and were found guilty of eight.

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