Shane Phelan: 'Law Society faces questions over case of solicitor who overcharged by €650,000'
The Law Society is facing questions over its handling of a complaint against a solicitor who overcharged a former client by €650,000.
An inspection of the solicitor's firm by the society's investigating accountants in December 2011 did not uncover evidence of any wrongdoing. However, Taxing Master Declan O'Neill, who decides on disputes over legal bills, subsequently found "blatant and obvious overcharges" by solicitor Joe Buckley and significantly reduced his bills.
These included a conveyance where a bill was cut by €270,000 and another matter where a bill was reduced from €60,000 to €6,000.
Although the Taxing Master's decision was upheld by the High Court last year, it appears the Law Society has not progressed a complaint against the solicitor by farmer and publican Denis Doyle.
Mr Buckley, of J Buckley and Company Solicitors, in Bray, Co Wicklow, denies overcharging and is appealing the High Court ruling.
Correspondence seen by the Irish Independent raised a number of questions over how the matter has been handled by the society, which represents and regulates solicitors.
In a letter, lawyers for Mr Doyle told the society their client was "at a loss to understand" how the matter had not been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
They said Mr Doyle believed the society had not given the complaint the full attention it deserved because Mr Buckley was a member of its complaints and client relations committee from 2008 to 2010.
Mr Doyle's lawyers also said the society had not provided "any plausible or logical explanation" as to how the inspection of Mr Buckley's files did not result in the same findings as those later made by the Taxing Master. It was also alleged straightforward questions were "either ignored" by the society or "dealt with by saying the matter is sub judice".
The Law Society has declined to comment, but the Irish Independent has established it has a practice of deferring to the courts in situations where issues raised in a complaint are also the subject of ongoing litigation.
Mr Doyle, who is based in Delgany, Co Wicklow, first complained about Mr Buckley in December 2011. The solicitor had represented him and his siblings in a number of matters over the course of a decade. One of these related to a land sale which fell through.
Following legal proceedings, Mr Doyle was able to retain €565,000 out of a deposit paid for the land. This money was paid into his client account, controlled by Mr Buckley.
But Mr Doyle says he could not get any satisfactory assurance it was being properly held on his behalf and issued High Court proceedings.
Mr Buckley later outlined in an affidavit that just €45,146 remained in the account. Mr Buckley said the rest went on fees he claimed were due to him, outlays and VAT.
Mr Doyle alleges the fees were deducted without his consent and submitted a claim to the Law Society's compensation fund in January 2012.
Mr Doyle subsequently learned from an affidavit filed by Mr Buckley that the solicitor's office had been inspected by the society. The affidavit said a report on the inspection did not contain any criticism of the manner in which any transactions, including those handled on behalf of Mr Doyle, were carried out by the firm.
Mr Doyle's solicitors sought confirmation of this from the Law Society in October 2012.
But it appears they got no response until September 2013 - and this did not address the question asked. The query was eventually answered in March 2014, some 17 months after first being made.
A senior investigating accountant confirmed there was an inspection after Mr Doyle made his complaint.
But he said the solicitor provided substantive responses to the issues raised. The investigating accountant said the matter was considered by the society's regulation of practice committee, but adjourned without any conclusions being reached pending the outcome of the High Court action.
Mr Doyle's solicitors protested they did not believe the Law Society could delegate its disciplinary function to the outcome of civil proceedings.
The High Court directed a number of files be examined by the Taxing Master, who concluded Mr Doyle had been overcharged. The society was informed of the decision in February 2016 and of an incident where Mr Buckley verbally attacked Mr Doyle in the Taxing Master's Court.
Mr Buckley initially denied this, but apologised after the Taxing Master listened to a recording of proceedings.
According to correspondence, a solicitor for the Law Society did not consider it should intervene over the verbal attack as the Taxing Master had dealt with it. The solicitor also said she was proceeding to close the file, but it was kept open following objections from Mr Doyle's solicitors.
Another Law Society representative told Mr Doyle's lawyers in July 2017 that the compensation fund and conduct issues could not be taken up until matters had concluded in the courts.
By that stage Mr Buckley had appealed the Taxing Master's findings to the High Court. A ruling upholding those findings was made last December, but is now being appealed further to the Court of Appeal.
In the meantime, Mr Doyle has amassed substantial legal bills in pursuit of the money he believes he is owed and further court battles await him.
Proceedings over the €565,000 client account money are on hold pending the latest appeal of the Taxing Master's findings. The Law Society declined to comment on Mr Doyle's criticisms. It also declined to answer a list of questions, submitted by the Irish Independent, about investigative procedures and practices. "We are legally restricted from providing any of the detail you seek, particularly because the matter remains sub judice," it said.