Saturday 17 March 2018

Solicitor who stole clients money is jailed for two years

Conor Gallagher

A WICKLOW solicitor has been jailed for two years for stealing €130,000 from his clients.

Niall Colfer (54), who has since been struck off, stole the stamp duty paid by clients while helping them buy property. He also stole one third of an Irl£150,000 compensation claim awarded to one of his clients.

Colfer acted as a solicitor for twenty years and was running the family practice when the offences came to light. He was struck off as a solicitor by the High Court in 2008 after it emerged he had stolen up to €1.6 million of his client's money.

His defence counsel said he has since had to sell his two homes and an investment property to raise compensation and is now living in an "fairly ordinary house."

Colfer of Rathdown Park, Greystones pleaded guilty to 2 counts of fraudulent conversion and two counts of theft at his offices in Donaghmeade Shopping Centre between 1999 and 2004.

Today at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, he was jailed for taking €130,000 from four clients. He had originally taken a trial date but entered a guilty plea early this year.

Judge Martin Nolan said the thefts were "deeply reprehensible" and that the most serious issue was the breach of trust involved.

"Clients are entitled to expect an honest solicitor," he commented. "Unfortunately these clients didn't find an honest solicitor."

Judge Nolan said there were several strong factors in Colfer's favour but that he must pay a "heavy price" for letting down himself, his clients and his profession.

"No man can escape a custodial sentence when it involves such a breach of trust," the judge added.

The thefts were uncovered when Colfer went on holiday in October 2004 and a locum solicitor filled in for him. This solicitor noticed the client account had a large deficit which is against regulations for solicitors.

When she alerted the Law Society and Gardai, several cases of suspected theft and fraud came to light.

Detective Garda Brendan Maye told prosecuting counsel Remy Farrell SC that William Campbell hired Colfer to represent him in a personal injury matter. The case was settled in August 2000 for Irl£150,000 but Mr Campbell left the Four Courts unsure about what had happened.

Shortly afterwards Colfer gave a cheque of Irl£107,000 to Mr Campbell and said he was going to keep the balance until his fees were paid by the other party.

However by this time, Colfer had already been granted his fees of Irl£27,000 by the other party. Mr Campbell made repeated enquires about the outstanding money but Colfer kept "fobbing him off" with excuses and legal jargon.

On one occasion he said he was waiting on the Taxing Master to decide costs while another time he falsely claimed that the other party in the case was bringing an appeal against the costs.

Another client, Philip Brown, hired Colfer to act for him in several complex property transactions. When purchasing one property he lodged the money into Colfer's account including Irl£17,750 for stamp duty.

However Colfer never handed on the stamp duty and kept the money for himself.

In 2004 Michael McCabe used Colfer to help buy a development property on which €47,250 stamp duty was due. Again the money was not handed over to the revenue.

A similar crime occurred shortly beforehand when Brian McLoughlin transferred €7,000 into the solicitor's client account for the purpose of paying stamp duty on purchased property. This money also disappeared.

While Colfer was on holiday, the locum solicitor, Susan Martin, discovered the deficit in the accounts. She alerted the Law Society who investigated and went on to compensate the victims.

Colfer was arrested and claimed he couldn't remember several of the transactions involved. He denied ever "personally" taking money and said he had not committed any crimes. In Mr Brown's case he said that if money was withheld, it was to pay his legal costs.

Defence counsel Aileen Donnelly SC said Colfer had to raise compensation by selling his family house, an investment property and a holiday home he had just bought in America.

She said he had worked all his life in his father's practice and took over after he retired. She said he was soon "in over his head" and kept trying to move money around to keep afloat.

She said that in these four cases his negligence strayed into criminality.

Counsel submitted he has had a huge and public fall from grace and that he is extremely remorseful. She said he has attempted suicide because of the offences and went on to seek treatment in John of God's.

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