Sheehan -v- The Solicitor Disciplinary Tribunal & ors, [2017] IEHC 643 (2017)

Docket Number:2016 82 SA
Party Name:Sheehan, The Solicitor Disciplinary Tribunal & ors
 
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THE HIGH COURT[2016 No. 82 SA]

IN THE MATTER OF BARRY SHEEHAN, A SOLICITOR

AND

IN THE MATTER OF THE SOLICITORS ACTS 1954-2015

AND

IN THE MATTER OF THE SOLICITORS DISCIPLINARY TRIBUNAL

BETWEEN

BARRY SHEEHAN

PRACTISING UNDER THE STYLE OF BARRY SHEEHAN SOLICITOR APPELLANTAND

THE SOLICITORS DISCIPLINARY TRIBUNAL AND

BERNARD BINGHAM AND VIOLA BINGHAMRESPONDENTSAND

LAW SOCIETY OF IRELAND NOTICE PARTY

JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Kelly, President of the High Court delivered on the 31st day of October, 2017

Introduction

  1. On 10th October, 2017 I found in favour of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) and the Law Society of Ireland (The Law Society) in respect of preliminary objections which they raised to issues sought to be litigated by the appellant solicitor (Mr. Sheehan) as part of his appeal from an order of the SDT dated 5th July, 2016. I indicated that I would give my reasons in writing for so finding. This I now do.

    Background

  2. There is a long tortuous history of bitter relations between Mr. Sheehan and his former clients, Bernard Bingham and Viola Bingham (Mr. and Mrs. Bingham). The Chairman of the SDT was undoubtedly correct when he said in the course of its ruling of 23rd June, 2016 that “both parties had been fixated about vindicating their respective positions against the other”.

  3. For the purpose of this judgment it is not necessary to recite each and every episode where Mr. Sheehan and Mr. and Mrs. Bingham confronted each other whether in the SDT, the Circuit Court or this Court. I mention only those occasions which have a relevance to this ruling.

  4. In 2002 Mr. and Mrs. Bingham commenced medical negligence proceedings in the High Court. They retained a number of firms of solicitors to act on their behalf parting company with each of them in turn. In March 2006 Mr. Sheehan came on record for Mr. and Mrs. Bingham in that litigation. He came off record on 17th December, 2008 following a contested hearing before Feeney J. In January 2009 Mr. and Mrs. Bingham made a complaint to the Law Society concerning Mr. Sheehan. They were unsuccessful. They appealed that decision to the independent adjudicator of the Law Society who rejected the appeal.

  5. In June 2009 Mr. Sheehan decided to sue Mr. and Mrs. Bingham in the Circuit Court for costs allegedly due to him in a sum of €37,725.44. Mr. and Mrs. Bingham delivered a defence and counterclaim to that claim. They counterclaimed for damages for professional negligence and breach of contract.

  6. Mr. Sheehan was refused summary judgment in respect of his claim and the case went to trial at Dundalk Circuit Court before Judge Flanagan. That Judge in an extempore ruling dismissed Mr. Sheehan’s claim and Mr. and Mrs. Bingham’s counterclaim. The reasons for these dismissals remain unclear.

  7. Mr. Sheehan appealed that decision of the Circuit Court. Mr. and Mrs. Bingham did not appeal the dismissal of their counterclaim. Mr. Sheehan’s appeal came on before the High Court (Hanna J.) in Dundalk in July 2012. He withdrew his appeal. Accordingly, the decision of the Circuit Court was affirmed.

  8. In September 2014 Mr. and Mrs. Bingham applied for an inquiry into the conduct of Mr. Sheehan on the grounds of alleged misconduct. No fewer than 27 allegations of misconduct were made. These were considered by a division of the SDT which took the view that a prima facie case of misconduct had been made out in respect of just two of the allegations made by Mr. and Mrs. Bingham. They were that (i) Mr. Sheehan was “abusing his position by threatening to destroy the entire file unless Mr. and Mrs. Bingham settled his bill of costs despite a Circuit Court order dismissing his claim” and (ii) “was refusing to return the file or grant access to it to Mr. & Mrs. Bingham”.

  9. These complaints proceeded before the SDT in July, October and December 2015 and May and June 2016. Mr. Sheehan was represented by counsel at the July 2015 hearing but thereafter he represented himself. He was self represented on this appeal.

  10. The SDT found Mr. Sheehan not guilty of misconduct in respect of the second allegation. However in respect of the first it found him guilty of misconduct. In this respect it said:-

    “In the Tribunal’s view the respondent solicitor, having been frustrated by his claim for costs being dismissed by the Circuit Court, being reported on two occasions to the Law Society and knowing that the threat to destroy the files would cause the applicants considerable anguish, wrongly threatened the applicants with the destruction of their files. This was a deliberate act to try to force the applicants to give him some money for the work he did on their behalf even though the Circuit Court had dismissed his claim for costs. The Tribunal also infers from the fact that the respondent solicitor, despite his threat to destroy the file, did not actually do so because he knew perfectly well that the file, other than the working papers, belonged to the applicant. As such the respondent solicitor’s conduct was morally culpable or otherwise of a disgraceful kind which tended to bring the solicitors profession into disrepute and therefore he was guilty of professional misconduct”.

  11. In June 2016 the SDT made its decision on sanction. It directed that Mr. Sheehan be censured and that he pay a sum of €5,000 to the Solicitors Compensation Fund together with a sum not exceeding €750 to Mr. and Mrs. Bingham in respect of their attendance before that tribunal.

  12. It is from that decision of the SDT that Mr. Sheehan brought the instant appeal.

  13. The above is an outline of the confrontations that have taken place between Mr. Sheehan and his former clients in a variety of different venues. I have only mentioned those which are relevant for the purposes of this ruling. There is a much fuller recitation of these matters in the decision of the SDT under appeal.

    The appeal

  14. As is clear from the title to these proceedings Mr. Sheehan exercised his statutory entitlement under the relevant provisions of the Solicitors Acts in order to bring this appeal.

  15. The notice of motion grounding the appeal was dated 28th July, 2016 and the appeal came before me in October and December 2016.

  16. Mr. Sheehan named the SDT as a respondent and Mr. and Mrs. Bingham as mere notice parties.

    The notice of motion

  17. The motion grounding the appeal seeks the following reliefs:-

    “(i) An order pursuant to Order 53, rule 12(i) of the Rules of the Superior Courts 1986 (as amended), and section 11(b)(i) of the Solicitors (Amendment) Act 1960 (as amended), rescinding the order of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal dated the 5th day of July, 2016 and the finding of misconduct made that the appellant had ‘abused his position by threatening to destroy the entire files unless the notice parties settled his bill of costs despite a Circuit Court order dismissing his claim’ and thereby engaged in...

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