By Ann O'Loughlin
A Kerry solicitor has lost her appeal over a finding of professional misconduct against her for causing a deficit of €259,000 on a client account after negotiating a "disquieting" settlement for herself in that sum and lodging it in a personal account.
Whatever her "shortcomings", no dishonesty was ever alleged against Helen Lucey, principal of the firm Marshall & Maculay, Listowel, Co Kerry, the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, stressed.
He will decide later whether Ms Lucey should be struck off the roll of solicitors and make full restitution, as the Law Society seeks, or get a lesser penalty, as recommended by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, allowing her to continue to practise under supervision.
In a detailed judgment, he upheld findings by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal that Ms Lucey had in 2011 transferred €259,000 to herself from the client account of a deceased woman, Naomi Dillon, without express instructions of Sheila Walshe, a beneficiary of Ms Dillon's estate, in breach of the solicitors account regulations.
He said Ms Dillon died in 1995 and her estate included a former Garda station at Oranmore, Co Galway, then valued at €100,000 but which, thanks to Ms Lucey's efforts, was sold for €4.5m in 2005.
The estate also included an apartment in Dalkey, Co Dublin, where Ms Walshe lived with Ms Dillon as her companion.
Ms Dillon was a sister of the bursar at Mount Anville Convent when Ms Walshe was a religious sister there before being laicised.
Ms Lucey said she transferred the €259,000 sum to herself under a 2006 negotiated settlement of three High Court actions initiated by Ms Walshe through other solicitors against Ms Lucey over alleged delays in administration of the estate but which never proceeded; of a complaint by Ms Walshe against her to the Law Society which was not upheld; and of her own proposed counterclaim against Ms Walshe over alleged defamation and aggravation.
She claimed she also had a cause of action against the Society but the €259,000 settlement related to Ms Walshe only and represented half of the estimated €500,000 value of her claim.
The settlement was negotiated at what the judge described as a "highly unusual" meeting in October 2006 between Ms Lucey and Mr Finbarr Ross, as financial adviser to Ms Walshe, then aged in her eighties.
Cork-born Mr Ross fled to America after his Gibraltar-based company, International Investments, crashed in 1983 and some 1,200 people lost over £7m. He was later extradited to Northern Ireland where a conviction on three fraud charges was obtained but overturned on appeal.
In 2006, he was a director of the Institute of Love and Peace and operator of a tour company, Celtic Mystical Journeys.
The judge ruled Ms Walshe, as a beneficiary under the will of Ms Dillon, was Ms Lucey's client within the meaning of the solicitor's account regulations.
He found Ms Lucey was acting as a solicitor for Ms Walshe at least insofar as the monies were concerned; held the monies in that capacity and there was a conflict of interest in doing so when she was contemplating a counterclaim which she satisfied in part against those monies. The regulations did not permit a withdrawal such as was done here.
Ms Lucey undoubtedly felt aggrieved about the proceedings and complaint brought against her by Ms Walshe, he noted. The Society, he noted, had dismissed the complaint and there may have been "no real basis" for Ms Walshe's proceedings which undoubtedly caused Ms Lucey distress and costs.
Against that, Ms Lucey never issued any proceedings against the Society and made no counterclaim in the Walshe proceedings and it was “extraordinary” she believed she had a cause of action against Ms Walshe and the Society with a total value of €500,000.
Earlier, the judge said aspects of the settlement reached with the "dubious figure" of Mr Ross in the negotiating seat were "disquieting". Ms Lucey simply nominated the figure, Mr Ross agreed to pay it and A & L Goodbody, which, on Ms Walshe's behalf, initiated the proceedings against Ms Lucey subject of the settlement, were not aware of it.
While the negotiations were on foot of a letter from Ms Walshe stating Mr Ross was representing her interests, Ms Lucey was aware of Mr Ross’ background and had indicated she would have been “wary “of him.
He upheld certain other findings of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal relating to delays by Ms Lucey in distributing certain charitable bequests and paying over certain monies of a deceased former client. He allowed her appeal over findings she failed to distribute funds relating to two clients and failed to distribute milk quota funds to another client.