Solicitor given time to explain €101k deduction from widowed client's estate
A solicitor has been given time by the High Court to provide a full explanation for his deduction of some €101,000 fees from a €396,000 estate held for a widowed client and her three children.
After a meeting last week between solicitor Declan O'Callaghan and the widow about those fees, they had agreed on fees of some €28,000, one fifth less than the €101,000 sum, the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, was told.
The €101,000 was withdrawn from the estate in 39 separate withdrawals on dates from August to November 2017, he said.
Gabriel Gavigan SC, for Mr O'Callaghan, practising from Pound Street, Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, said his client has exhibited an authorisation concerning the fees but needed time to properly address the concerns raised by the Law Society.
Earlier, the court heard the widow had contacted the Society expressing concerns after reading media reports last month about Mr O'Callaghan's reimbursement of some €344,000 fees, including VAT, which he had taken from a sum of €454,000 gathered into the estate of a bereaved child.
Arising from the issues raised by the widow's case, Mr Justice Kelly agreed on Monday to further adjourn the Society's application concerning whether the solicitor should be suspended pending an inquiry into his conduct.
Nessa Bird BL, for the Society, said it has been directed by its Regulation of Practice Committee (RPC)to continue its application to suspend the solicitor pending inquiry but wanted the matter adjourned for further reports concerning the widow's estate and more generally.
The adjournment was granted on terms including the solicitor undertaking in the witness box not to transfer files.
The judge said the issues concerning the widow's estate were "disquieting" but he was satisfied the public would be protected by measures including another solicitor, approved by the Society, would supervise Mr O'Callaghan's practice and be the sole signatory on accounts.
On June 22nd last, the court was told Mr O'Callaghan had reimbursed some €344,000 fees and costs, including VAT, taken by him from a bereaved child’s estate between 2014 and 2017.
The €344,000 sum was described as “extortionate” by an independent solicitor who compiled a report into matters at his practice. The independent solicitor expressed the opinion the fees charged bore no relation to the work done on behalf of the estate to date and also expressed the opinion there was dishonesty involved.
Mr O'Callagan says he now accepts the fees were excessive but also says he conducted himself honestly at all times.
The €344,000 remains lodged in an account controlled by another solicitor pending further court order.
Last March, the RPC, having considered reports into the solicitor's practice, resolved to refer him to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for an inquiry into his conduct and authorised the Society to apply for an order suspending him from practice pending that inquiry.
Mr O'Callaghan has made proposals aimed at allowing him continue to practice, pending that inquiry, under supervision of another solicitor and the matter was adjourned to Monday to facilitate that.
On Monday, the judge was told by Ms Bird that a widowed client of Mr O'Callaghan who learned of the proceedings from the media had contacted the Society concerned about her husband’s estate.
A Society investigator who looked into the matter had found, between August 2017 and 2018, €101,000 was taken in fees out of €396,100 gathered into that estate when it seemed there was authorisation to take just €21,000 fees, she said.
Mr O'Callaghan disputes that and says there was a signed authority authorising the drawing of fees, she said.
It also seemed €30,000 was taken concerning a possible medical negligence claim by the estate but no proceedings were issued in that regard, she said.
Counsel said Mr O'Callaghan and the widow met last week when it seemed a refund of some €80,000 fees was made and it would appear he accepted there was a "technical breach".
This matter is of concern to the Society which believes it deserves further investigation, she said. The concern was there seemed in this matter to be a replication of conduct concerning the child's estate and the Society needs more explanation of the amount of transfers and about the €30,000 cheque, she said.