A Banbridge man who admitted posing as a barrister to defraud a woman seeking legal advice after the death of her mother was handed a 16-month sentence after appearing in court today (Wednesday).
As part of his criminality, 34-year old Christopher McDonnell took £590 off the woman and told her he was going to use the money to bribe a judge.
After being told McDonnell was a qualified barrister, the woman sought advice following the death of her mother in December 2014. She was concerned about how her mother had been treated in hospital and was seeking legal advice about possible medical negligence.
During today’s sentencing, Judge Patricia Smyth said the woman had not only “suffered a financial loss that she could ill afford” but she has also “lost her trust in people” and has since sought assistance from her GP on how to cope with the emotional impact.
Belfast Crown Court heard McDonnell, from Limewood in Banbridge, first met the woman after he rented an office in a church in Carrickfergus, which he then turned into a gym. His offending began at a time when he was trying to keep the business afloat, and he started “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The woman first met McDonnell via a friend, and a month later, when they met again, McDonnell “listened to her story” about her mother’s death.
A Crown prosecutor said McDonnell told the woman he was a barrister and worked on behalf of the English Chambers in Northern Ireland.
On several occasions in March 2016, the woman handed McDonnell differing sums of money. He claimed after one payment that the money she gave him was going to be used to bribe a judge.
McDonnell told the woman he was taking her case to a court in England - but by September 2016 she had concerns that things were not quite right. The prosecutor said that McDonnell forged a letter addressed to her from a recognised law firm.
He also manipulated legal and other documents he then showed to the woman - but which were branded as “gobbledygook” by the prosecutor.
McDonnell’s offending began to emerge after the woman became so concerned about the progress of her case that she contacted Chambers in London, only to be told McDonnell was not on their list of approved barristers.
She also contacted the firm of solicitors named in the letter sent to her, and was informed they had never heard of McDonnell or her case. She was advised at this point by the law firm to contact police.
The total amount the woman handed to McDonnell was £2590.02. She will receive £1,000 by way of compensation paid by McDonnell.
McDonnell was stopped by police on November 30 last year, and when his car was searched officers found documents which linked him to the woman.
When an investigation was launched, it emerged that McDonnell had defrauded a second woman. She told police she met him at church and he told her he was a qualified barrister.
He offered to help her legally following the breakdown of her marriage. The prosecutor said: “She handed him £40 in cash, believing he was a barrister.”
The prosecutor said McDonnell’s offending was “not spontaneous”, but instead was “pre-meditated, intended deception.”
He pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud by false representation, two counts of theft and two charges of forgery.
Defence barrister Joel Lindsay said McDonnell was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” after he came under financial pressure linked to the gym he opened at the church.
Explaining that McDonnell believed if the business took off he could then pay the women back, Mr Lindsay said: “This does not change the fact of the tremendous harm caused to these people.”
Sending McDonnell to prison, Judge Smyth said she accepted the offences were committed against a backdrop of his own marital difficulties and “mounting debts” related to the gym business.
The Judge told McDonnell he will spend eight months in prison, followed by eight months in licence when he is released.