A Co Down solicitor stole almost £94,000 from the estates of three deceased clients to prop up his failing business following a downturn in the property market, a court has heard.
John Irwin, 39,of Trummery Heights, Moira, pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud by false representation and a three further charges of false accounting.
Craigavon Crown Court was told the offences took place on dates between August 2007 and July 2012 and involved three deceased males he was acting for in probate matters on behalf of their relatives.
Prosecuting barrister Joseph Murphy said the offences came to light in 2012 when the Law Society of Northern Ireland received a complaint about Irwin and an investigation was launched into his solicitor’s practice.
Judge Kinney was told that three cases were found to be at fault with a total loss to relatives of the deceased men amounting to £93,366.97p.
The prosecutor said that monies were taken out of the client accounts and then transferred into the office account of Irwin’s practice.
In a number of the cases, Irwin had claimed some of the monies was in respect of bills for probate work he had carried out but “no bills were ever sent out to the relatives”.
Other monies were used to pay office rent and also his monthly salary.
The court heard Irwin was suspended from practice by the Law Society and was subsequently struck off from practising as a solicitor. He was also later bankrupted.
“He made full admissions at police interview and admitted taking the cash from the client account and did so as there was a cash shortage following a downturn in the property market. His business was based on conveyancing.’’
Mr Murphy added that Irwin’s parents had paid £65,000 over to the Law Society’s Compensation Fund and a further £15,000 was paid over by the defendant from the sale of his family home.
“That has left a shortfall to the Law Society Compensation Fund of £13,000. However, the victims have been compensated in full from the fund.’’
The prosecutor told Judge Kinney that there were a number of aggravating factors the court needed to consider before passing sentence.
He said that the “degree of trust was very high as the defendant was a practising solicitor and the Law Society would have reposed a high degree of trust in him. The public would also have placed a high degree of trust in him’’.
Mr Murphy added that the offending had taken place over a three-year period and that he was making cash withdrawals from his client account.
Defence barrister Conor Maguire said Irwin had always intended to pay back the monies and there was no intention on his part to “permanently deprive his clients of their cash’’.
“It was as a result of a difficult situation he found himself in but that is by no way an excuse. Before the downturn in the property market he instructs me that he would have 20-30 live conveyancing files,’’ said Mr Maguire.
“However, when the property downturn came in 2007 he had only one or two live files.’’
Mr Maguire said Irwin used the money to try and keep him and his business going and it was not used to fund an “extravagant lifestyle’’.
“He is shameful and very remorseful for what has happened. This is something that he could not have possibly got away with. He knew he was going to be caught in respect of this. It was a charade.’’
The defence barrister said Irwin’s offending had had a “devastating impact’’ on his wife and two young children and they were forced to sell their £220,000 family home.
“He has lost everything. He has lost his business. He has lost his career which he worked very hard to get.’’
Urging Judge Kinney not to jail Irwin even though the custody threshold had been reached, Mr Maguire said Irwin was not likely to reoffend and a suspended sentence would act as a deterrent.
Judge Kinney said he would pass sentence later this month and released Irwin on continuing bail, warning his barrister: “That should not be taken as an indication of the likely outcome of what that sentence will be.’’