Solicitor stole from deceased estates to prop up failing business

John Irwin, a County Down solicitor, pleaded guilty earlier this month to three counts of fraud and three counts of false accounting from which he stole almost £94,000 from deceased clients.

The offences, which took place between August 2007 and July 2012, involved three deceased males he was acting for in probate matters on behalf of their relatives.

In 2012 the Law Society of Northern Ireland received a complaint about Irwin and an investigation was launched into his solicitor’s practice which is when the offences came to light.

Prior to the downturn in the property market, the practice had been heavily reliant upon conveyancing but in 2007, the practice went from around 20-30 conveyancing files to 1-2 live cases; this allegedly led to the crimes as Irwin had used the money to keep his business afloat.

The monies were taken out of the client accounts and then transferred into the office account of the practice. In a number of the cases, Irwin had claimed some of the monies were in respect of bills for probate work he had carried out but "no bills were ever sent out to the relatives".

Following an initial suspension, Irwin was eventually struck off from practising as a solicitor by the Law Society. He was also later made bankrupt.

The prosecuting barrister said 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."

Whilst the money was not used to fund an extravagant lifestyle, the prosecutor went on to tell the Judge that there were a number of ‘aggravating’ factors the court needed to consider before passing sentence including 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 Irwin’s barrister, Conor Maguire, said he (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.

"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."

He went on to say that Irwin’s offending had had a "devastating impact" on his wife and two young children and they had been 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."

Irwin was given a 12 month sentence. The judge said he would spend four months in custody and a further eight months on supervised licence following his release.

Today's Wills and Probate