Solicitor struck off after ‘heinous’ attempt to cover up litigation error


SDT: solicitor should have admitted mistake

A solicitor whose corporate client had a summary judgment entered against them because he failed to attend a court hearing, has been struck off after making a false statement denying he knew about it in advance.

Michael Brendan O’Maoileoin, who at the time was establishing an insolvency practice as a senior associate in the London office of Hugh James, claimed that the pressure of litigation contributed to his conduct.

The solicitor, aged 50, who qualified first as a barrister in 2004 and as a solicitor in 2009, admitted he dishonestly provided a false statement for the purpose of High Court proceedings.

The misconduct took place between August 2014 and April 2015. In July 2015 he and a colleague were made redundant. After that, Mr O’Maoileoin worked as a self-employed consultant for dispersed law firm gunnercooke.

The solicitor failed to attend the hearing of an application for summary judgment against his client, following which insolvency proceedings were issued to recover almost £150,000 and then a winding-up petition in January 2015.

At that point, in a belated attempt to set aside the summary judgment, he falsely claimed in a statement of truth that due to a “clerical error” the first he knew about it was in January 2015, when in fact he had known at the time of the summary judgment application in August.

Striking him off, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal said that instead of admitting his error, “he concealed what had happened by… using a cover-up which was much more heinous than the original mistake”.

Even if, after admitting the mistake, Mr O’Maoileoin had failed to set aside the summary judgment, the tribunal continued, “any negligence was capable of being compensated by [his firm’s] insurance policy”, which would at least have meant he was “unlikely to have come before the tribunal”.

It concluded: “The appropriate mature action was to act with integrity and own up to his error, at an early stage.”

Explaining what happened,  Mr O’Maoileoin told a partner at his firm soon afterwards that “due to an oversight on my part” he had failed to note the 4 August hearing date and confused it with 14 August.

He continued: “This is not something that I have ever done before (nor since) and I simply panicked when I discovered that not only had the claimants obtained summary judgment but then went on to rely on it in support of a winding up petition against the company.”

Rather than come clean, the tribunal recorded, he told the partner “he just wanted to hide it away from… the client. He… just froze and couldn’t explain why… The matter had broken him down.”

Appearing before the tribunal, the solicitor said he had been suffering from “extreme pressure, both personally and professionally” and after giving a false statement out of “sheer panic…the case snowballed and I just could not change it”.

He admitted that his conduct had been “effectively perjury” but said that his work was especially difficult: “Whilst stress is part and parcel of the job, there were some moments that were more stressful than others, particularly in litigation.”

The tribunal did not consider that the solicitor’s arguments in mitigation amounted to the exceptional circumstances necessary to arrive at a sanction short of strike off. His dishonesty had been “very serious” and his motive had been to protect his reputation.

If he had needed to discuss the pressure of work with his firm, Mr O’Maoileoin could easily have done so by simply “pick[ing] up the telephone… to start the conversation”.

The tribunal continued: “This was a case of deliberate dishonesty which continued over a period of time. The respondent made a conscious decision to lie in his witness statement.”

He was “an experienced solicitor in a supportive environment [who] made a mistake and covered it up with lies to the court. He was, ultimately, found out in his deception. The respondent repeatedly said that he ‘panicked’ but dishonesty, not panic, was at the root of [his] conduct”.

He was ordered to pay costs of £7,400.

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