Lawyer linked to ‘anti-mosque’ campaigns able to practice again
A Sydney-based lawyer who has been connected to various anti-mosque campaigns has regained his privilege to practice law following an attempt by the Council of the NSW Law Society to have him suspended.
In the matter Balzola v Council of the Law Society of NSW, solicitor Robert Balzola was alleged to have misappropriated client trust funds, caused deficiencies in trust monies, falsified trust records and breached various requirements of the Legal Profession Act 2004, and the Legal Profession Uniform Law (NSW).
Mr Balzola was also alleged to have misled trust account investigator Simon Ward during the course of his investigation of Mr Balzola’s practises.
The Council of the Law Society of NSW called for the suspension of Mr Balzola’s practising certificate in July 2017, alleging that Mr Ward’s probe suggested that the solicitor was using trust money to bolster his law firm and pay his annual salary. The initial suspension period was set to the year ending 30 June 2018.
The Law Society NSW noted there had been a complaint made against Mr Balzola the year prior, in 2016, after he helped a group of individuals oppose the construction of a mosque in Melbourne, and was involved in other similar campaigns in Sydney and Canberra, according to SMH.
The publication noted that trust money deposited by community campaigners was being held in Mr Bazola’s firm’s general account without their permission, and that there were discrepancies in account statements he provided.
The court heard investigator Mr Ward accuse Mr Balzola of manipulating trust accounting records to avoid detection by “erroneously issuing receipts from his trust account for funds that were never received”.
“Trust money deposited to the general account was regularly used in meeting the general liabilities of the practice,” he added.
The matter against Mr Balzola came before Justice Des Fagan on 4 August 2017 because of a dispute between Mr Bazola and his lawyers, and Council of the Law Society NSW about which of the parties should be required to file their evidence first. Justice Fagan made orders in that regard and urged for the parties to move forward quickly.
“In the nature of the proceeding it is urgent that the plaintiff’s summons should be finally disposed of in order to determine whether he should be suspended from practice,” Justice Fagan said during the court proceedings.
“There is a strong public interest in resolution of this where a trust account is concerned and where the council has received a report such as that of Mr Ward identifying apparent serious irregularities in the plaintiffs handling of funds held by him in trust.
“I indicate to the parties that they should be ready to take the appointment of a hearing date for the final disposition of the summons when the matter is before the Registrar on 8 September 2017.
“The Registrar is requested to note that the matter requires to be dealt with expeditiously and that a date for hearing should be appointed as soon as possible after 8 September 2017.”
Despite the urging, the proceedings were repeatedly adjourned at the Law Society’s request, court documents reveal.
As per a judgment dated 4 June 2018, lawyers for Mr Balzola argued that a 56-day period the Law Society had to vary the immediate suspension from the time it notified him had expired. Meanwhile, the Law Society upheld that the 56-day period didn’t run while the immediate suspension was placed on hold by the stay.
“Unfortunately, no hearing date was obtained on 8 September 2017 or thereafter. Rather, the matter was adjourned by consent from time to time with some further directions being given about evidence. No explanation was offered for that when the present notice of motion came for hearing before me,” Justice David Davies said in delivering his judgment in the Supreme Court of NSW last month.
“On 15 May 2018 leave was given by the Registrar to file the present notice of motion. That was a notice of motion filed 18 May 2018 by the plaintiff which sought the following declaration: A declaration that, in the events which have happened, the defendant’s immediate suspension of the plaintiff’s practising certificate under s 77 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law (NSW) on 20 July 2017 has expired.”
Justice Davies reiterated that “no explanation had been offered about why steps were not taken more promptly to have the proceedings brought on for hearing, the correspondence asserts, without denial by the Law Society, that the proceedings were adjourned at the Law Society’s request from September 2017 until February 2018”.
“In those circumstances, the obligation was on the Law Society to explain why that course was requested. The request tends to minimise any fault on behalf of the plaintiff in not having the proceedings brought on for hearing more promptly,” Justice Davies said.
Justice Davies concluded that since the 56-day period had expired without any action, the temporary suspension has lapsed.
“Senior counsel for the Law Society said that, in the light of the stay granted, the Law Society did nothing towards making any decision in relation to s82,” Justice Davies said.
“This was because the Law Society is a model litigant and did not want to do anything which might lead to an approach by the plaintiff to the court asserting an abuse of process whilst the stay was in place. I accept that the Law Society acted in good faith in that regard.
“It is nevertheless unfortunate that so much time has elapsed since the stay was put in place and the 56-day period expired. No explanation has been offered, as I have said, about why steps were not taken more promptly to have the proceedings brought on for hearing.
“Justice Fagan urged expedition. Notwithstanding his remarks on 4 August 2017 the plaintiff did not seek a hearing date when the proceedings were before the Registrar on 8 September. Rather, the proceedings were adjourned by consent a number of times with the result that the principal relief sought in the proceedings has become, as a result of the effluxion of time, largely otiose."
Based off those circumstances Justice Davies ruled that Mr Balzola’s immediate suspension of his practising certificate has expired. Justice Davies also awarded costs for part of the proceedings to Mr Balzola.