Ethics Law

High Court Strikes Down Fee Claim For Suicide Abatement by Galway Solicitor, Patrick M Keane

I don’t know if Galway solicitor Patrick M Keane is the same Paddy Keane I used to know years ago, but if he is, he hasn’t lost his black sense of humour.  I could tell you stories about Paddy’s exploits as a student that would put the hair standing up on your head, but of course, my lips are sealed.  What goes on tour stays on tour, as they say.

I always liked Paddy.  In our student days, he educated me about such abstruse concepts as the incorporeal hereditaments, something that often came in useful later in life when confronted with ravening drunks at a taxi rank.  He told me what a tort was, and he informed me about Lord Denning’s frolics.  He was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and never less than great company.

What’s more, he always had a skewed take on life, which I greatly enjoyed, but he really has excelled himself with the latest caper.

Paddy is a solicitor, and a damn good one by all accounts, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  He was always a bright sort of fellow, but to the best of my knowledge, he never studied anything but law, apart from his primary degree which was in some Arts thing.  He certainly never became a counsellor, and for my authority here, I rely on Mr Justice Nicky Kearns of the High Court,  who said as much when rejecting Paddy’s claim of €14,000 for 70 hours of what he called suicide abatement.

The background is this.  A seven-year-old boy was hit by an uninsured  car, with consequent physical and mental trauma.  He was badly broken up in body and mind.  The victim sued the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, which handles claims against uninsured drivers, and eventually, in 2009, the parties settled for €800,000 plus costs.  Paddy claimed  €406,069 in fees, which presumably included barristers’ costs, expert witnesses, doctors’ bills, travelling expenses, photocopying and all the rest of it.  But it also included a most unusual item, headed suicide abatement phone calls, which Paddy estimated at 70 hours, for which he charged €200 per hour.  Reading between the lines, it seems that the unfortunate victim spent long hours on the phone to Paddy talking about his despairing feelings and Paddy in turn was only too willing to listen, at three times the rate that a professionally-qualified counsellor would charge.

The defendants referred the costs to the taxing master, James Flynn, who reduced them to €324,000.  Still not satisfied, the defendants referred the matter to the High Court where Mr Justice Kearns said that Paddy should never have made the claim in the first place since solicitors are not qualified to counsel anyone.  He went on to say that Mr Flynn didn’t analyse the costs properly and should never have allowed them.  Interestingly, Flynn is a former solicitor, while Kearns is a former barrister.

Now let me ask you this.  If you were feeling suicidal, who would you call?  Well, maybe if you thought you were on good terms with your solicitor, you might call him up.  But would you spend 70 hours on the phone discussing your suicidal urges?  Maybe you would, if you had been so emotionally traumatised as the victim in this case.

Turn it around a different way.  If you were a lawyer, or a dentist, or a plumber, or an interior designer or a journalist or a bricklayer and one of your customers called you to say they were feeling suicidal, what would you do?  You’d probably do the right thing as a human being and you’d listen to them.  But would you spend 70 hours listening to them, and would you set your money-clock ticking as you did so, or would you steer them in the direction of a qualified professional and gracefully withdraw?

Taking the most charitable interpretation of it, I can imagine a lawyer being called at all hours of the day and night.  This happens.  I know it from other people in the profession, but there are ways of dealing with these things that don’t involve taking careful note of the billable minutes as they add up.  And besides, even if you found yourself having your ear bent, would you submit a bill for services you are not qualified to provide?

I can’t imagine Paddy charging for, let’s say, assessing the structural stability of a foundation, or measuring the stopping power of a car’s brakes, or assessing the toxicity of a pollutant in the drinking water, although if he’s the same man I’m thinking of, he would be well versed in farming matters.  So what on earth did he think he was doing charging for counselling, at a rate no qualified counsellor would ever dream of applying, and is he happy to have it working both ways?

I wonder how Paddy would feel about a counsellor with no legal qualifications offering legal advice at a third of the rate he himself charges?

Of course, I could be wrong.  It might well be that his fees reflect the level of his counselling qualifications, despite what the High Court has to say on the matter.  For all I know, he might also be qualified in heart surgery, orthopaedics, architecture, craft brewing, chiropody, horticulture and botany.  He might even be a doctor of divinity, for all I know.

Blame Mr Justice Kearns if I got it wrong.



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