A Co Down solicitor who stole almost £10,000 (€11,800) from the legal firm that employed him, to fund his cocaine habit, walked free from court on Wednesday after receiving a suspended sentence.
Imposing a 10-month jail sentence on Christopher Owens at Downpatrick crown court, sitting in Belfast, Judge Geoffrey Miller QC said that given the 32-year-old’s guilty plea and the steps he has taken to address his issues the prison term “should not be immediate” and so he suspended the sentence for a year.
At an earlier hearing Owens, from Woodrow Gardens in Saintfield, confessed to one count of fraud by abuse of position between September 1st, 2015, and March 14th, 2018, in that while he was in a position of trust at Wilson Nesbitt Solicitors he “generated false claims for swearing expenses and paid the value of same to your own bank account to the value of £7,385.50″.
While a second charge that Owens “intercepted cash sums paid by clients for retainer fees and paid the value of same to your own bank account to the value of £2,150″ was left on the books by the prosecution, the solicitor accepted he had also taken that money.
Summarising the case during his sentencing remarks on Wednesday, the judge outlined how retainers from some clients were being paid directly to Owens but suspicions were raised when those clients realised the money they had already paid had not been taken off their final bills.
That prompted an internal investigation which revealed the frauds and prompted the firm to alert the police, who arrested and questioned Owens.
He admitted that he had defrauded the firm by claiming for swearing spurious affidavits, fake travel expenses and that some clients were paying money directly into his account.
He told the police he had taken the money “to fund a drugs habit” which had started in 2017 following a car accident “but he expressed remorse” for his behaviour.
While the crown case amounted to just under £10,000, the judge revealed that Owens has repaid £12,005.
Turning to the probation pre-sentence report, the judge said it was clear that Owens was “a gifted and intelligent man” who had come from a happy and settled family. However, it seemed that with the strain of his studies and coming out to his family, he had begun to drink to excess and to turn to drugs.
“By virtue of these offences he has destroyed any prospect he may have had in continuing in this profession and building and flourishing career,” said the judge, who added that while the offences were aggravated by the breach of trust and the lengthy period of offences, there was mitigation in Owens’s plea, remorse and restitution.
Owens, who is also a well-known Irish dancing coach some of whose students have enjoyed significant success, continues to teach but it is understood that he is being closely monitored by Irish dancing governing body.
The judge told Owens that had he been convicted after a trial he would have gone to jail.