Friday 19 January 2018

Two solicitors overcharged €340,000 for work on estate of woman who left €14m to charity, High Court hears

St Vincent de Paul (stock)
St Vincent de Paul (stock)

Tim Healy

Two solicitors overcharged by €340,000 for their work on administering the estate of a woman who left €14m to the St Vincent de Paul charitable society, the High Court heard.

Gerard Williams Sandys and Bryan C Brophy, of Sandys and Brophy, Sea Road, Galway, today failed in a challenge to a decision by the Law Society to refer a complaint about the alleged overcharging to society's Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).

The president of the High Court Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns dismissed their challenge and he affirmed a July 2013 decision of the Law Society's Complaints and Client Relations Committee (CCRC) to refer to the SDT a complaint about the two solicitors' alleged failure to send to the Vincent de Paul an estimate of their costs for administering the estate.

 The judge said Sandys and Brophy acted as solicitor for the late Maureen O'Connell who died in May 1998 and left an estate, principal asset of which was O'Connells Bar in Eyre Square, Galway.

The solicitors had to institute legal proceedings to prove the will and condemn a subsequent will and that case was settled in 2013. A separate case also had to be take to get possession of the pub and this was settled in 2006 with the premises eventually sold for €14m.

In 2011, a solicitor for the St Vincent de Paul complained to the Law Society two solicitors had charged excessive fees for their work on the estate and had also failed to furnish an estimate of fees.

The society's CCRC asked the solicitors for detailed schedules of their fees charged. Over a number of months there were various proposals about how the matter might be resolved.

However, by July 2012 the CCRC decided to bring in its own legal costs accountant to look at the complaint.   That accountant delivered a report which found there had been an overcharge of €340,000.

Just before the CCRC was due to meet to discuss the matter in February 2013, Mssrs Sandys and Brophy said they wanted to submit their own cost accountant's report.

The CCRC later replied the solicitors had ample opportunity over the previous two years to do this (get a cost accountant) and it went ahead with determining the complaint and referring it to the SDT.  The CCRC also determined there was overcharging.

The solicitors then brought a High Court challenge seeking to quash those decisions.

They claimed they had not been afforded fair procedures by the CCRC which, they said, elevated its own accountant's report to the status of accepted fact.

They also claimed the CCRC unlawfully delegated a decision making function to its own cost accountant and had failed to give reasons for its decision to refer the complaint to the SDT.

The Law Society disputed their claims and opposed their challenge.

Mr Justice Kearns found that while the solicitors had a right to bring judicial review proceedings, they had,  after the matter had "dragged on for over two years", sought to submit their own accountant's report on the eve of a CCRC meeting to deal with the complaint.

He was satisfied the CCRC afforded them fair procedures by commissioning, at its own expense, an accountant's report which the solicitors could have made submissions on.

He did not accept their claim the CCRC had delegated its decision-making function to that accountant or that it had failed to provide adequate reasons for its determination.

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