Thursday 22 August 2019

Solicitor guilty of misconduct for not refunding excessive fee

Solicitor Robert Lee from Kilmallock, Co Limerick, leaves the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in Dublin.
Solicitor Robert Lee from Kilmallock, Co Limerick, leaves the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in Dublin.
Noel Leonard leaving the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in Dublin.
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A solicitor who charged three times what he should have for the administration and dispersal of the estate of a late farmer has been found guilty of professional misconduct.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal made the findings after hearing Robert M Lee failed to comply with an order of the Taxing Master to refund excess fees he claimed from the estate.

When Mr Lee eventually did agree to refund the fees, he failed to give back the full amount, the tribunal heard.

The lawyer, a partner in Lees Solicitors in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, apologised to the beneficiaries of the farmer's will.

But he denied what had happened amounted to professional misconduct.

The case arose out of a complaint by retired publican Noel Leonard, of Bray, Co Wicklow.

Mr Lee was the solicitor who handled the estate of his late brother Richard, a farmer from Kilmallock, Co Limerick, who died in 2008.

Mr Leonard was unhappy with the fees charged by the solicitor, which amounted to €36,285, including Vat.

After examining the matter in 2014, Taxing Master Declan O'Neill reduced the bill to just €10,346 plus Vat.

However, Mr Lee failed to refund the difference to a client account for the estate.

Neasa Bird BL, for the Law Society, said Mr Lee was directed by the society to refund what was owed but did not do so.

The tribunal heard that in a letter to the society in February 2016, Mr Lee contended he was not prepared to comply with the Taxing Master's order.

The following month, the society's Complaints and Client Relations committee informed Mr Lee it would be referring the matter to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. It put a three-month stay on the referral to allow him reconsider his position, which he did.

That May, Mr Lee issued cheques to beneficiaries of the estate, but Mr Leonard did not cash his. Instead he queried the amount and how it was calculated.

Giving evidence to the tribunal, Mr Lee admitted he had made a mistake calculating how much was owed.

The tribunal heard Mr Lee believed the overall sum owed to the estate was around €19,900, when sum owed was actually €23,658.

"I was confident my calculations were correct. Unfortunately they weren't," he said.

The solicitor insisted he had not intended to mislead anyone or to withhold money due to beneficiaries of the estate.

Ms Bird told the tribunal that this error only became clear to Mr Lee "in the last few days".

"You are a solicitor. It ought to have been obvious to you that you were not refunding the full amount," she said.

The tribunal heard all monies owed have now been paid into the client account.

Tribunal chairman Michael Lanigan said it was satisfied Mr Lee was guilty of misconduct when he failed to abide by the Taxing Master's direction.

He said the tribunal was ordering that Mr Lee be censured, pay a sum of €3,000 to the Law Society's Compensation Fund and pay a contribution of €2,000 to the legal costs of the society.

Irish Independent

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