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Lawyer convicted of misappropriating almost $1m in client funds struck off

A sole principal, who was sentenced to more than two years’ imprisonment for misappropriating nearly $1 million held on trust for five different client matters, has been removed from the roll.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 25 January 2023 SME Law
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At the end of last year, the NSW Court of Appeal declared that The Lawyer (whom Lawyers Weekly has opted to anonymise) was not a fit and proper person to remain on the roll of Australian lawyers and ordered that their name be removed from the roll.

The Lawyer, who was admitted in South Australia in 1973 and NSW in 1974, held a practising certificate in the latter state until mid-2017 when that certificate was suspended by the Law Society of NSW. From 1994 until June 2017, they were the sole principal of their firm.

In January 2017, a client of The Lawyer made a complaint to the NSW Legal Services Commissioner (LSC) about a delay in accounting for money payable from the settlement of the sale of his property. Following this, the LSC referred the complaint to the Law Society, which — following an investigation — led to the suspension of The Lawyer’s practising certificate on 21 June and the appointment of a practice manager.


The Lawyer wrote to a barrister colleague on 22 June, admitting to a “major shortfall in my trust accounts”, recording calculations as to outstanding amounts owed to former clients, and asked the barrister to help those clients make claims on the Law Society’s Fidelity Fund to ensure they were compensated.

In July 2017, the appointed practice manager found that the firm’s trust reports were not current and that there was $0.14 remaining in the trust account. The following month, the Law Society appointed an investigator and supervisor of the trust account to facilitate the reconstruction of the trust cash books and ledger accounts.

In December of that year, The Lawyer advised the investigator and supervisor that the trust account deficiencies originated from a “series of financial hardships [they] had suffered and [their] attempt to ‘gamble [their] way out’”. They also said that they had sold a residential property to meet obligations to creditors and commenced “juggling trust funds” to disguise the position of each client ledger.

In June 2019, The Lawyer was charged with dishonestly causing a financial disadvantage by misappropriating funds from the firm’s trust account, to which they pleaded guilty. The state’s District Court convicted The Lawyer under s192E(1)(b) of the Crimes Act and issued a sentence of two years and three months’ imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 10 months.

The Lawyer was “in due course” released on parole, and the sentence expired in late October 2022. They had, NSWCA noted, no prior convictions.

The District Court found that, between August 2013 and June 2017, The Lawyer had dishonestly misappropriated $987,252.86 held on trust in relation to five separate matters. On sentencing, that court found that the offence involved a “significant breach of trust”, as they were acting as a solicitor and handling money in “such an important position of trust”.

In addition to the matters that were the subject of criminal charges, the investigator and supervisor’s report identified five further matters in which “the respondent failed to maintain proper trust records and in relation to which a reconstruction of the client ledgers was necessary”.

It was noted by the court at that time that The Lawyer had begun experiencing financial difficulties around the time of the global financial crisis, when they acted for clients who were unable to or did not pay. In 2011, The Lawyer was forced to close their office and begin practising from home, and sometime after had to sell their family home.

The sale of the home, the court said, was when “everything changed for [them]”, following which their “life was unravelling and [they] started to feel that [they] did not want to continue in the legal profession. It was at that time that [they] started to play poker machines”.

Moreover, The Lawyer suffered from a number of health conditions and had experienced difficulties in their personal relationships that affected their finances, but they continued to work throughout these episodes and despite their illnesses.

It was further accepted that The Lawyer was “very remorseful” and that they regretted the impact of their actions on their clients and that they cooperated fully with the investigation.

The criminal conduct that The Lawyer pleaded guilty to and was convicted of, NSWCA held, was, “on any view of things, very serious criminal conduct”.

It involved, president Julie Ward, Justice Jeremy Kirk and acting Justice John Griffiths held, “taking deliberate advantage on numerous occasions of opportunities arising out of [their] employment as a solicitor and the trust and confidence reposed in [them] as a solicitor”.

“The offences involved significant breaches of trust and serious dishonesty. That alone, in our opinion, establishes that the respondent is not a fit and proper person to practice as a solicitor. However, the additional (uncharged) conduct reinforces this conclusion,” the court determined.

On the question of whether The Lawyer is likely to remain unfit to practise as a solicitor for the indefinite future, NSWCA determined that “the deliberate and intentional nature of the conduct and the absence of any evidence suggesting that the respondent (though remorseful) has taken steps to address the way in which [they] might safeguard against such conduct in the future (were [they] to reapply for admission) leads to the conclusion that the respondent is likely to remain unfit to practice for the indefinite future”.

NSWCA noted that The Lawyer had not opposed the order being sought to strike them from the roll, nor did they oppose the making of the declaration sought by the Law Society.

“This court considers that it would be inimical to the reputation of the profession, and to public confidence in the integrity of the profession and the administration of justice, for the respondent’s name to remain on the roll,” Ward P, Kirk JA and Griffiths AJA wrote.

Accordingly, NSWCA ordered that The Lawyer’s name be removed from the roll and that they pay the Law Society’s costs.