Lawyer fined for unprofessional conduct

A legal practitioner has been ordered by the Law Council Disciplinary Committee to pay a fine of more than VT430,000 for poor handling of a serious case registered back in 2010.

Stephen Tari Joel was given 21 days to clear the fine.

Failure to do so will result in suspension from practicing in court until the payment is made in full.

The Committee handed VT150,000 fine with another VT150,000 to be paid to his client for compensation, and VT25,000 for the hearing cost.

Mr. Joel agreed to refund the legal fees his client paid to him during the course of processing the case, which is VT110,000.

The Chairman of the Committee, Judge Gus Andrée Wiltens, said Mr. Joel’s standing in the community as a senior practitioner without previous blemishes on his reputation was a significant factor in keeping the level of sanction below suspension.

He said the appropriate level of the lesser alternative, a fine is needed to be set at a significant standard to achieve the goal of deterrence and will also serve as a punitive sanction.

The Chairman said Mr. Joel’s absence during the whole time when the court called up the matter for hearing was in breach of Rule 2, 3, 14, 39, 43, 59, 66, 67 and 9 of the Legal Practitioner’s Act CAP 119 Rules of Etiquette and Conduct of legal practitioners.

The case against the lawyer came about following a defamatory case that the former Director of Lands, Jean Marc Pierre, filed in 2010 alleging an article carried by a leading newspaper at the time had defamed him.

He instructed Mr. Joel to act on his behalf and he paid VT110,000 legal fees for services he later alleged were not rendered professionally and in circumstances where what he was being told as to the progress of his claim by Mr. Joel and his staff, in particular Mrs. Joel was simply untrue.

Mr. Joel did not attend the hearing but had filed a sworn statement dated November 28, 2018 as his response to the allegations.

He did not dispute the majority of the facts alleged and he conceded to a breakdown of the lawyer-client relationship, but attributed that largely due to Mr. Pierre writing a letter to him on August 24, 2013 was highly critical and which made continuing to represent him difficult.

He pointed out that he was incapacitated due to poor health from late March 2014 through until August 2014, and provided the Committee with a medical certificate in support.

While so incapacitated Joel was unable to attend Mr. Pierre’s case and that was the reason the case was struck out and Mr. Joel offered to refund the money he took from his client.

Justice Andrée Wiltens said that Pierre accepted the full repayment of the legal fees but wanted the committee to consider a complaint as he remained dissatisfied at the level of legal service he received. He still maintained he has a good case for defamation but all prospects of holding those responsible accountable for that has evaporated – he remains aggrieved.

To support the claim, a sworn statement by Pierre is required and there was no attempt to undertake this necessary step, at any stage in Joel handling the defamation case.

Without that, the claim simply could not proceed beyond the very preliminary stages and between August 2012 and June 2014, this vital piece of work remained incomplete.

Between January and September 2013, nothing appears to have been done to progress the claim.

After October 2013, when the defense was filed, the legal counsel did not request the court to schedule a first hearing conference – simply waited for the court to act of its own motion.

Joel later failed to attend court as required on May 2 and May 23, 2014 and June 12, 2014 claiming he was sick that the medical certificate he tendered before the committee showed that he was given a week’s course of pain killer in March 2014.

When he appeared before the committee Joel said that recovery had been slow over many months.

The committee said that if Joel was unable to attend court at the time, he should have instructed one of his agents to act on his behalf either to seek an adjournment or to progress the case to the next stage. He did not explain why he did not adopt that course of action.

His response to the allegation does not in any way address his client’s complaint that his wife (Mrs. Joel) lied to him on several occasions when he asked about the process of the case.

He was assured repeatedly that all was well and progressing before the court.

The Committee then penalized Mr. Joel to pay the fine within 21 days. Failure to pay will result in suspension in any court bench in Vanuatu.

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