Judge slams Legal Practice Council’s delayed action on attorney misconduct

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The Legal Practice Council (LPC) has been criticised for failing to address complaints against an attorney over several years, with a High Court judge saying that timely action by the LPC could have prevented further misconduct.

On 10 May, the High Court in Pretoria ruled that Ashley Youngman (the respondent) be struck off the roll of legal practitioners. This after Youngman was suspended from practising since 5 December 2023, following an LPC application on 31 October 2023.

In the judgment, Judge Omphemetse Mooki, with Acting Judge Mncube concurring, noted that over five years, more than 20 complaints were lodged with the LPC (the applicant) against Youngman. These complaints primarily concerned property transactions despite his not being a licensed conveyancer.

Youngman, although aware of the hearing, did not file a notice to oppose.

According to court documents, Youngman is accused of multiple instances of misconduct involving property transactions. Examples listed include a “Ms Mbatha”, who paid R12 862.55 into Youngman’s trust account for a property transfer that he never completed. Despite being asked by the LPC to respond to the complaint, he did not.

A “Mr Hinckley” paid more than R2.5 million for a property transfer that Youngman also failed to execute. Youngman ignored requests to prove the funds were still in his trust account and refused to hand over files and funds to Hinckley’s new attorneys.

In another case, Youngman refused to refund R1.6m to a client after failing to transfer property, sending threatening messages when the client enquired. He falsely claimed the transaction could not proceed because of his company’s liquidation, which the LPC found to be untrue.

Judge Mooki said Youngman’s conduct fell far short of what is required of a legal practitioner. He ruled that Youngman was “not a fit and proper person as is required of a legal practitioner”.

“He was not authorised to hold himself as a conveyancer. He misled the public in this regard. He threatened clients when those clients wanted him to account to them. He largely ignored the LPC when the LPC invited him to respond to complaints against him. His failure to oppose the application is an admission that the case against him is unanswerable,” the judge said.

Too little, too late

But it wasn’t only Youngman’s conduct that the judge found to be at fault.

A table provided in the judgment shows that the first complaint lodged against Youngman with the LPC was made in November 2019, followed by another that same month. In 2021, there were two more complaints, followed by six in 2022, and 11 in 2023. The last complaint listed is dated 23 May 2023. Most of the complaints, including the first one made in 2019, were property-related.

Judge Mooki said the LPC’s response to the complaints was “perfunctory and fell short of what is expected of the LPC as a regulator of the profession”.

He noted that when the LPC received a complaint, it typically notified the respondent and requested a comment. However, he said these notifications were sometimes sent many months after the complaint was lodged. The judge added that Youngman generally ignored notifications sent to him by the LPC, while the LPC, in turn, “hardly made follow-ups when the respondent ignored the notifications”.

“There is no evidence that the LPC took measures between the lodging of a complaint and the LPC’s notification of that complaint to the respondent,” Judge Mooki said.

He also raised doubts about the efficiency of the LPC’s work processes and the competency of its team.

“The court was also informed that the LPC has some 23 officials who deal with complaints lodged against legal practitioners. It is a surprise that the responsible officials at the LPC failed to notice an obvious trend given the large number of complaints against the respondent,” Judge Mooki said.

As part of its argument against Youngman, the LPC stated that the Legal Practitioner’s Fidelity Fund, which reimburses individuals for financial losses due to theft by legal practitioners, is endangered because of the respondent’s failure to account for trust funds. There are 51 claims against Youngman with the fund, mostly related to his purported role as a conveyancer. Consequently, the fund has paid out R23 491 476.81 due to claims against Youngman.

The judge said the LPC was correct to raise this concern. However, he said the LPC “contributed to the risk”.

“There are several contingent claims valued in the millions of rand. There would have been far fewer claims had the LPC been diligent in attending to the multiple complaints concerning the respondent,” Judge Mooki said.

Moonstone reached out to the LPC for comment. However, as of publishing, no response has been received.

Charges in a separate matter

The LPC’s investigation into Youngman seems to have gained momentum only after meeting with him in June 2023 – four months after his arrest in a separate matter. Youngman has been charged in a R26m fraud case against Standard Bank. He surrendered himself to the Hawks in Bloemfontein at the beginning of last year and is currently out on bail.

It is alleged that, in November and December 2021, former Standard Bank employees Kelebogile Tlhatlosi and Gotshwanetse Mmoniemang Adora collaborated with several others, including Michael Sayers, Youngman, Brian Odora, Ellen Mahlulo, Thokiso Marvin Mosikili, Sthembiso Gerald Hleza, Siyabonga Ngwenya, and Boleba Albinis Lesale, fraudulently to access the bank accounts of three Standard Bank clients.

They allegedly made multiple transfers from the clients’ accounts without their knowledge, causing a loss of R26 181 000 to Standard Bank, although R7 726 863.03 was recovered.

The Hawks’ Serious Commercial Crime Investigation team took up the case for further investigation, leading to the arrest of the first seven accused between December 2021 and October 2022. They were later granted bail ranging from R500 to R10 000.

In February 2023, Sayers and Youngman surrendered themselves to the Hawks in Bloemfontein and were granted bail of R10 000 each after appearing briefly in the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court on fraud charges.

In March 2023, the Asset Forfeiture Investigation Section of the Hawks, in collaboration with the Asset Forfeiture Unit of the National Prosecuting Authority, obtained a preservation order, seizing assets worth R703 600 in cash and a Mercedes Benz CLA Sport vehicle. Ngwenya was arrested in May 2023.

Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo told News24 that the State’s case against Youngman was ongoing.

The online news platform reported that Youngman, who is out on bail, is expected to appear in the Bloemfontein High Court in August.

Click here for the full judgment.

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