Saturday 17 August 2019

Solicitor charged his client for hearings that he never attended, High Court told

Solicitor Joe Buckley is fighting the overcharging ruling
Solicitor Joe Buckley is fighting the overcharging ruling
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A solicitor billed a client for court hearings he never attended and claimed to have spent hours working on matters which took considerably less time to complete, the High Court has heard.

The revelations came in a case described by one experienced legal costs accountant as "the worst example of overcharging" he had ever seen.

The court heard Wicklow-based solicitor Joe Buckley billed publican Denis Doyle €7,000 or €8,000 for the services of a senior barrister, even though the barrister had insisted the maximum that could be charged was €1,500, plus VAT.

Details of the overcharging emerged in a hearing in which Mr Buckley objected to his legal bills being cut by more than €650,000 by Taxing Master Declan O'Neill. The case involved 10 bills charged to Mr Doyle for legal work in connection with land sales and other matters.

Mr Buckley has asked Mr Justice Donald Binchy to review Mr O'Neill's findings, claiming he is entitled to all of the fees deducted by the Taxing Master.

Opposing the solicitor's application, Mr Doyle's counsel Paul Anthony McDermott SC said a "very experienced" legal costs accountant, Shane O'Donnell, had described the matter as "the worst case of overcharging he had ever encountered".

Mr McDermott urged Mr Justice Binchy to dismiss the solicitor's application, alleging that the manner in which Mr Buckley had made his case was "an abuse of process".

Mr Buckley, whose practice is at St Ives, Seapoint, Bray, represented Mr Doyle for 10 years from 1998. But Mr Doyle initiated High Court proceedings in 2011 in connection with a €600,000 deposit he gave the solicitor. Mr McDermott said Mr Doyle had wanted to know where the €600,000 was, and brought proceedings when Mr Buckley wouldn't answer.

"Eventually that case resulted in Mr Buckley admitting that he had taken the vast bulk of the money," the barrister said.

A ledger card showed there had been "a quick sequence of withdrawals" from the account.

"What we don't know is the kind of pressure that existed at that time to require the deposit to be removed in that way," he said.

The solicitor has claimed he was owed the disputed monies in fees, but Mr McDermott said that of the €600,000 just €35,000, a payment to a liquidator, was properly dispersed. By the time the account was frozen by a court just €45,000 was left.

During the hearing Mr McDermott highlighted several examples of overcharging identified by the Taxing Master.

These included a substantial bill submitted to Mr Doyle when Mr Buckley had already recovered the legal costs involved from Wicklow County Council.

The Taxing Master said another bill, for €60,000, was "wholly excessive" and slashed it to just €6,000. Some €3,000 was billed for postage in one case, but the Taxing Master only allowed €100 of it.

Mr McDermott said Mr Buckley billed his client on several occasions for being in court when he wasn't there.

Mr Buckley said the bills reflected work he had done on the issues rather than time spent in court. The solicitor also argued Mr Doyle consented to fees and signed bills, only raising objections later.

Mr McDermott said in one conveyance the fee charged was "five times the norm" and that Mr O'Neill had described this as "blatant and obvious overcharging". In another matter, Mr Buckley had told Mr Doyle he would charge him between €150 and €250 per hour but proceeded to charge much higher rates.

The barrister cited an instance where Mr Buckley had charged for eight hours' work when all he had done was forward a letter. Eight hours were claimed for another task, when the solicitor's own files indicated half that time was involved.

Mr McDermott said the Taxing Master found that in relation to one bill, Mr Buckley's client had been presented with "impenetrable opaqueness" rather than clarity.

Mr Justice Binchy will rule on the matter at a later date.

Irish Independent

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