Judge stands aside from solicitor sentencing

Judge Melanie Greally

Judge Melanie Greally

The case of a former solicitor who stole €260,000 from her clients is to be re-heard after the sentencing judge realised that a member of her wider family knew a relative of the accused.

Jacqueline Durcan (47 ) previously from Co Mayo but with an address in Rue Laubespin, Brussels, Belgium, pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to one count of stealing €260,000 between February 21, 2008 and January 27, 2011.

At an earlier sentence hearing this month Judge Melanie Greally heard that Durcan, a mother-of-five, was running the family business, Durcan Solicitors in Castlebar, Co Mayo, at the time of the offence.

She claimed she stole the money after she made a series of “catastrophic” investments during the property boom. The court heard Durcan and her husband owed €6.5 million to the banks at the time.

Judge Greally had adjourned the case having heard evidence to allow her time to consider sentencing.

She said on Monday that it had since come to her attention that a member of her wider family was known to Durcan’s family and she felt she could now not deal with the case.

She transferred it to Judge Patricia Ryan, who adjourned the case to December 2 next when the evidence will be re-heard.

Garda Noel Brown told Sean Gillane SC, prosecuting, at the earlier hearing, that between 2008 and 2011, Durcan made five withdrawals of sums up to €100,000 from mixed client deposit accounts.

Some of the money was spent on office expenditure and professional indemnity insurance, Garda Brown said. However, in September 2010, Durcan used €51,500 of the money to pay for the purchase of her own home, the court heard.

Upon hearing her practice was due to be audited in early 2011, Durcan contacted the Law Society and told them there would be a deficit in the accounts.

The court heard it was extremely difficult to ascertain which clients had money stolen from them, as the funds were taken from mixed accounts. In 2014, the Law Society paid out €206,184 in compensation claims, which Durcan has since repaid.

Durcan was struck off and moved to Belgium with her family, where she now teaches English as a foreign language. She has no previous convictions.

Defence barrister, Patrick Gageby SC, said his client and her husband were in the difficult position of owing €6.5 million to the banks at the time of the offence.

“This young couple overreached themselves during the property bubble,” he said. “They made a series of ventures which brought catastrophic circumstances on themselves and their family.”

The couple now live in “egregious” financial circumstances in Belgium and struggle to support themselves and their young children, Mr Gageby said.

“This is not a case in which anybody set out to enrich themselves,” he said. “It’s not a case where she set out to defraud her clients.” The thefts took place at a time when Durcan was trying to run a practise with two full-time and four part-time workers, Mr Gageby added.

He said Durcan was aware of the shame she has brought on her family and has had to close the family practice that was “at the forefront of Mayo legal circles for 90 years”. She is extremely unlikely to reoffend, he said.

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