Monday, February 20, 2012
Crooked lawyers under fire
Crooked lawyers under fire
February 20 2012 at 10:34am
By ZELDA VENTER
Pretoria High Court Judge Eberhard Bertelsmann said neither the law society nor the court could be satisfied with the number of complaints against attorneys.
The number of pending complaints of alleged misconduct against attorneys under the jurisdiction of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces – 4 590 in total – is so high that a Pretoria High Court judge has said this “casts a very sorry reflection on the state of affairs in the legal profession”.
The Law Society of the Northern Provinces is the statutory body governing the attorneys’ profession in four provinces making up the former Transvaal – that is, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.
Suspending an attorney last week, Judge Eberhard Bertelsmann said neither the law society nor the court could be satisfied with the statistics.
The figure came to light during the application for the suspension of attorney Naas le Roux.
Of the 4 590 complaints pending before this law society against its members, 4 117 cases were still under investigation.
A total of 473 still had to be heard by a disciplinary committee, while 58 applications for suspension and 121 for striking from the roll were pending before court.
The number of applications pending before court and the shortage of judges – in the light of the congested court roll – have caused great concern. So much so that Pretoria’s Deputy Judge President, Willem van der Merwe, engaged with the society to try to find a solution to the backlogs and the disposal of future disciplinary applications.
The law society’s president, Jan van Rensburg, said the society had presented the court with a comprehensive proposal on how to streamline the process.
For decades the practice had been that two judges would hear disciplinary applications, as it affected a person’s livelihood and reputation.
This meant two judges had to be set aside for this, while the court could barely cope with the daily roll.
Judge Van der Merwe said he was looking into the proposals. Directives to streamline disciplinary hearings before court were expected to be in force by July 1, he said.
Meanwhile, Judge Bertelsmann expressed dissatisfaction with the law society for asking for the suspension of attorney Le Roux, who he said should clearly be struck off the roll.
“Dishonest attorneys must be laid by the heels as soon as possible,” the judge said.
The time of judges in this “very busy division” was wasted by first asking that an attorney be suspended from practising, Judge Bertelsmann said, as the matter would again have to serve before two judges at a later stage for striking an attorney off the roll.
The judge said Le Roux had left his previous firm under a cloud, failed to submit audit certificates to the law society, confessed to having misappropriated R450 000 and was under investigation by the police for alleged misappropriation of trust funds. Yet the law society had asked only that he be suspended.
A suspension allows the name of the attorney to remain on the roll and enables a dishonest individual to continue to mislead unsuspecting members of the public.
It was against the public interest not to apply for the ultimate sanction in cases where warranted, the judge said. The unsuspecting public should be safeguarded from falling prey to dishonest attorneys.
In the light of the congested court roll, the earliest date for new disciplinary applications was next year, which meant “thieving practitioners had to take their place in the queue”, creating opportunity for “further nefarious conduct”.
The judge ordered that Le Roux tell the court by May 9 why he should not be struck off the roll. He is suspended from practising.
Van Rensburg said the statistics regarding attorneys under investigation seemed to paint a grim picture of the profession, but few complaints filed by the public ended in serious action or in court.
Many complaints were “unfair”, while only a few led to serious charges being brought against an attorney, he said.
“It is a long process to go through all the complaints. We go through each one to try to establish whether our member acted unethically.”
There was no “shotgun” approach. We are trying our best to resolve each complaint as speedily as possible. The wheels of justice sometimes grind slowly, but at least we are thorough with our probes”.