UNJUST ENRICHMENT IN IRELAND
Donaghy v JJ Haughey Solicitors Ltd
 NICh 1 (NI HC, ChD: McBride J)
Return of papers relating to administration of estate and previous litigation—solicitor’s lien
The plaintiff was the executrix and sole beneficiary of the will of a deceased woman for whom she had been carer for a number of years. The estate consisted almost entirely of a dwelling house in Armagh, into which the plaintiff moved a short time before the testatrix’s death, having sold her own house first. The will was challenged by a hospice on the ground of testamentary capacity; if this challenge had succeeded, an earlier will in favour of the hospice would have been revived. These proceedings were settled in terms of a 50:50 split of the estate between the plaintiff and the hospice.
The plaintiff lodged a complaint with the Law Society of Northern Ireland concerning her solicitors’ (defendants in the current proceedings) handling of the administration of the testatrix’s estate and the legal proceedings brought against her by the hospice. The defendants wrote to the plaintiff asserting that she had been uncooperative in respect of the property sale needed to give effect to the settlement with the hospice, and stating that in light of her complaint she should instruct other solicitors to continue the administration of the estate. Meantime the hospice brought proceedings against the plaintiff for specific performance of the settlement agreement.
In the current proceedings, the plaintiff sought delivery to her new solicitors of all papers in the defendants’ possession relating to the administration of the estate and the previous legal proceedings. The defendants refused to comply with this request until their costs had been paid or a satisfactory undertaking to do so was given. The plaintiff claimed that she needed the papers to help her decide whether to issue a third-party notice against the defendants in the specific performance proceedings.
Held: Subject to any contrary agreement, solicitors were entitled to exercise a general lien in respect of costs over any property of a client properly in their possession as a solicitor. As solicitors were officers of the court, the court could supervise the enforcement of the lien on equitable principles. A practice had developed that, if solicitors discharged themselves in the course of ongoing proceedings, the court would usually order them to hand over all relevant papers to their client’s new solicitors, on the latter’s undertaking to preserve the lien for costs and redeliver the papers at the end of the litigation. However, this weighty factor could be overridden if a different course best served the interests of justice.