The High Court decision of President Kelly of 4 April 2016 serves as an important reminder of the rigorous ethical standards to which solicitors are held.

The Law Society (the “Society”) applied to the High Court to have Mr Enright’s name struck off the Roll of Solicitors on foot of a finding of professional misconduct against him by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (the “Tribunal”) - Law Society of Ireland v Patrick Enright.

Background

Shortly after qualifying as a solicitor in 1986, Mr Enright worked in an American Insurance company in Kerry. He left there in 1994 and established his own legal practice. That same year, it was alleged that Mr Enright had forged insurance documents in his previous employment, and he admitted doing so. Charges of forgery were brought against Mr Enright in 1996. However, due to various challenges to the Irish and European courts, he was only convicted in 2013, and received a 12 month custodial sentence.

In the meantime, Mr Enright had continued to run his own legal practice in Kerry, and had never come to the Society’s attention. As accepted by President Kelly, he “ran his practice with complete propriety”.

In 2015, the Tribunal, on foot of a complaint to it by the Law Society, found that Mr Enright was not a fit person to be a solicitor and should be struck off the Roll.

High Court decision

In the High Court, Mr Enright’s counsel contended that strike off would be unfair and disproportionate. It was submitted that, since the forgery offences, Mr Enright had conducted his practice in an impeccable manner, and had the support of a large clientele with whom he had a personal relationship as a sole practitioner. In support of this, counsel cited the Supreme Court decision in Carroll and Colley [1] in which a lesser sanction than a strike off was imposed on two solicitors involved in a deliberate and elaborate tax evasion scheme.

The Society sought to distinguish the Carroll and Colley decision on the basis that, despite their disgraceful behaviour, neither solicitor has been convicted of a criminal offence of dishonesty. The Society placed particular reliance on the judgment of Sir Thomas Bingham in the English Court of Appeal decision in Bolton v Law Society [2] where he said:

“Any solicitor who is shown to have discharged his professional duties with anything less than complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness must expect severe sanctions to be imposed…The most serious [lapses] involve proven dishonesty, whether or not leading to criminal proceedings and criminal penalties.

[…] The second purpose is the most fundamental of all: to maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession as one in which every member…may be trusted to the ends of the earth…Otherwise, the whole profession, and the public as a whole, is injured.”

President Kelly accepted that Mr Enright had paid his debt to society through his term of imprisonment, and that it was highly unlikely that there would be any repetition of dishonesty on his part. Nonetheless, President Kelly agreed that striking Mr Enright off the Roll was the appropriate sanction and cited the decision of Sir Bingham with approval, commenting that:

“…the purpose of the sanction sought by the Law Society appears to be ‘the most fundamental of all’. In order to maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession and to sustain public confidence in the integrity of the profession, I share its opinion that it is necessary that Mr Enright’s name be struck from the Roll of Solicitors. A suspension from practice would not be adequate.

The purpose of this order is not punitive…the sole purpose is to maintain the reputation of the solicitors’ profession ‘as one in which every member may be trusted to the ends of the earth’. I do not believe that anything less than a strike-off order would be sufficient to achieve that purpose.”

Comment

This decision demonstrates that, even in the absence of any risk to the public, any proven dishonesty on the part of a solicitor will almost certainly result in the solicitor being struck off. The public interest requires that the public can be assured and confident that solicitors are honest and trustworthy. To promote and uphold this confidence, the courts will uphold decisions in which harsh examples are made of individual solicitors in order to safeguard the collective reputation of the profession.