A Co Down solicitor who stole almost £94,000 from the estates of three deceased clients to prop up his failing business has been jailed for four months after a judge said he had brought “disgrace on an honourable profession’’.
Sentencing John Irwin, 39, of Trummery Heights, Moira, to a further eight months on licence on his release from prison, Judge Kinney said the former solicitor had “breached the high degree of trust’’ placed in him by his professional colleagues and also by members of the public.
The judge said the breach of trust was among a number of aggravating factors in the case, including the “long period of time’’ over which the offending had taken place and the large amount of monies involved.
Irwin had previously 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 had told an earlier hearing that he 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 account 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, said Mr Murphy.
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.
Irwin’s business got into difficulties due to a downturn in the property market.
His lawyer maintained that Irwin always intended to pay back the monies to his clients.
Irwin’s parents paid £65,000 to the Law Society’s Compensation Fund, and Irwin himself paid £15,000 after the sale of his family home.
However, Judge Kinney told Irwin before sentencing: “There is no basis for accepting that you had any intention of paying the money back in an economic upturn in the property market.
“You knew what you were doing and you should have accepted your lot like everybody else who was in a similar position to you.
“You have brought disgrace to an honourable profession. The level of trust in this case was high, both to your professional colleagues and to the public.’’