A solicitor has failed in an appeal over her striking off from the roll of solicitors for professional misconduct.
Katherine (Kathleen) Doocey, principal of KM Doocey Solicitors, Belmullet, Co Mayo was struck off in November 2020 over what the High Court heard was allowing a €169,000 deficit build up on her client account and for engaging in improper transactions involving “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul”.
On Tuesday, a three-judge Court of Appeal (CoA), comprising Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly, Mr Justice Robert Haughton and Mr Justice Maurice Collins, rejected her appeal against the High Court decision.
Arising out of an investigation into her practice, it was discovered she had allowed the €169,000 deficit to build up at the end of 2017.
It was also found that she moved funds between the client and business accounts and between client ledgers to conceal shortfalls as they arose. This is "teeming and lading" more commonly known as "borrowing from Peter to pay Paul".
She made admissions in July 2019 to a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to this misconduct.
The tribunal heard evidence about measures put in place in the practice to ensure compliance with the Solicitors Accounts Regulations, including that two accountants and another solicitor acting in a supervisory capacity and Ms Doocey having no control over access to client funds.
The tribunal recommended, rather than a strike off order, her practising certificate be made subject to conditions. It took into account her conduct had not resulted in any financial loss for clients and a cyberattack on a client’s account caused a €50,000 loss to her practice.
The Law Society however, in bringing the case before the president of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, urged that she be struck off on grounds she was not a fit person to be on the roll of solicitors due to the extent of the financial irregularities in her accounts.
Ms Justice Irvine agreed she should be struck off because of what the judge said was "extremely serious" misconduct and at “the uppermost end of the scale of seriousness” .
Ms Doocey appealed.
Her central contention in the appeal was the High Court president erred in her appraisal of the scope of her enquiry.
She said the tribunal found her guilty on the basis of admissions she made, but she had emphatically denied that she was guilty of dishonesty at any stage.
She also argued the tribunal thereby accepted that she had no dishonest intent but that contrary to that finding, the High Court president concluded she had been guilty of dishonest conduct.
She argued the president was not entitled to substitute her own views of the evidence for the findings that the tribunal had made.
The Law Society opposed the appeal.
In the main judgment on behalf of the CoA, Ms Justice Donnelly said Ms Doocey admitted to the tribunal to conduct that was "objectively dishonest based upon facts of which she had actual knowledge".
The High Court was therefore entitled to find that the misconduct findings amounted to proven dishonesty.
In the exercise of her independent role in the disciplinary regime for solicitors, the High Court president was entitled to come to her own conclusion on the appropriate sanction and not to follow the recommendation by the tribunal, she said.
The judge took into account all relevant factors and she (Judge Irvine) was entitled to find that the system put in place for the protection of Ms Doocey’s present and future clients was not watertight.
In a separate concurring judgment, Mr Justice Collins said the High Court president was entitled to conclude Ms Doocey acted dishonestly and that the appropriate sanction was a strike-off.