The Law Society of Ireland could face a class action for compensation by clients of Thomas Byrne, the solicitor jailed for committing one of the biggest frauds by a legal professional in the history of the State.
The governing body for solicitors yesterday sought to defend its handling of the case which has already cost it more than €8m in legal and associated costs, as Byrne began a 12-year custodial sentence.
Byrne fraudulently raised loans by giving undertakings on properties he stated he owned.
According to John P Shaw, president of the Law Society of Ireland, the association acted as soon as Byrne’s dishonesty became known to them.
Byrne was struck off the Roll of Solicitors and ordered to pay a (still unpaid) penalty of €1m by the president of the High Court in June 2008, following allegations of forgery received in October, 2007. Yet, misgivings about Byrne’s behaviour had been considered by the Law Society in 2006.
The Law Society says it has paid out €7.2m in legal fees for Byrne’s victims but insists it cannot compensate them for what they term “consequential losses” arising from his illegal activities. The €7.2m came from a compensation fund all practising solicitors contribute to.
According to Mr Shaw, every client of Thomas Byrne who has made a valid claim on the Law Society’s compensation fund has been compensated.
However, former clients of Byrne dispute that and say by the Law Society has only offered compensation to cover their legal fees.
One of the those affected is Terry Connor who, along with his brother Matthew, used Byrne as conveyancer for properties they bought in the Clondalkin area of Dublin.
The brothers bought and sold a number of properties, only to find that Byrne defrauded them by putting five properties in his own name. They estimate that they have lost at least €1m as a result.
“Those properties were each worth €350,000 and are now down to €150,000,” said Mr Connor yesterday.
He described as “unbelievable” the assertion by the Law Society that he and his brother are not entitled to have their loss fully recovered.
“We were hoping all along we would be sorted out,” said Mr Connor, speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland radio programme.
“If we get all the victims together and take legal advice, we will see what is open to us. I want the Law Society to review this. It is not fair. We put our trust in professionals and expect them to be honourable. I am at the end of my tether. We will probably never get over this. It is unbelievable. This guy was governed by them.”
Mr Connor said he was surprised at the severity of the sentence Byrne received but felt he deserved it.
In seeking full compensation for their losses, former clients of Byrne may seek to rely on the fact that the Law Society has, since discovering his crimes, taken steps to strengthen its own regulations.
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