Northern Ireland news

Solicitor who took clients' money is handed suspended sentence

A solicitor who transferred clients' money to her own accounts has been handed a suspended sentence

A SOLICITOR from Co Down who admitted to transferring clients' money to her own accounts has escaped jail.

A total of 12 clients were affected by Elaine Mary Early's crimes - including an elderly asbestos sufferer who died before receiving a medical claim.

Belfast Crown Court heard that Early - the former owner of the now defunct Elaine Early Co Solicitors based in Comber - started "robbing Peter to pay Paul". Over a period from September 2014 to February 2016 she transferred money from client accounts to her own accounts.

Early, from Killinchy Road in Comber, only began transferring the money after the Law Society started investigating her practice due to concerns over professional negligence.

At the time she was in a "constant state of intoxication which clouded her judgment", the court heard.

All monies that were owed to Early's clients have since been reimbursed by the Law Society, with £178,728 remaining outstanding.

Judge Patricia Smyth said the case involved a "significant" amount of money and said Early's crimes had an impact on public trust.

She noted that Early was a woman with a history of mental health issues and alcoholism and had suffered a traumatic incident in the 1990s which has had a lasting effect on her.

After admitting to 12 charges of fraud by false representation and five of transferring criminal property, the 53-year-old was handed a sentence of two years and eight months, suspended for three years.

The court heard that the Law Society began investigating in September 2014. Early's certificate to practice was suspended in March 2016 when the society took control of her business.

Police launched an investigation and arrested Early in May 2016.

Her crimes included transferring £58,000 from an estate without the knowledge of the executor in April 2015 and lodging £25,000 in January 2016 which was meant for an elderly man who suffered from asbestosis.

The man died in March 2016. The claim was subsequently paid to his family.

Defence barrister John Kearney QC said Early had suffered a "traumatic incident" in 1991 which led to psychological damage and her turning to alcohol.

He said her offending began after the "death of the Celtic Tiger" which affected her conveyancing business.

Mr Kearney said Early used the money to try and pay back loans and mortgages on properties she bought during the boom.

Describing her offending as "the actions of a desperate woman trying to stay afloat", he said she had not had a drink for some time.

Judge Smyth said it was surprising that Early's offending only started after the intervention of the Law Society and accepted she did not display any trappings of wealth.

"The root cause of your offending lies in chronic mental health issues exacerbated by alcohol and trauma and that is the reason I am suspending this sentence," she said.

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