While a good lawyer should be on your side and be advising you in your best interests, this is regrettably not always the case.
Unfortunately, lawyers are not always the good guys and there are some corrupt lawyers in NSW.
While these people are the exception, not the rule, it is concerning that some lawyers take advantage of their position to the detriment of their clients.
People who are not knowledgeable about the law, or who are otherwise vulnerable, can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous lawyers.
This justifiably places a high duty of care on lawyers to act in the best interest of their clients.
Some lawyers have been known to take advantage of their clients by overcharging, and there are hundreds of complaints to the legal services commissioner every year resulting from excessive charging for legal services.
Other lawyers have been cruel enough to steal large amounts of money from their vulnerable clients.
In Victoria, just five days ago, it was reported that one lawyer had stolen over a million dollars from an elderly client.
87-year-old George Cutts was in a nursing home, so his bank statements showing exorbitant spending on cars, rent, jewellery and holidays just didn’t add up.
His shady solicitor had in fact forged signatures to give himself power of attorney for Mr Cutts, and had been authorising these fraudulent payments.
This lawyer, Euan Peter Vance, told the judge that this was how his client had instructed him to spend the money.
Not surprisingly, the judge was not convinced.
Vance was apprehended by police with $10,000 in his pocket and had another $340,000 hidden away in a buried safe.
Although he claims that the money was held there for safekeeping to protect Mr Cutts from the global financial crisis, his excuse was not very convincing.
He ended up pleading guilty to the 17 fraud charges – and Cutts was not the only client he had defrauded.
Normal criminal penalties apply to fraudulent lawyers, and they may also be struck off for professional misconduct.
There is no specific offence for a lawyer who defrauds his or her clients, but the general laws of forgery and fraud certainly apply.
Significantly, the fact that a lawyer held a position of trust is an aggravating feature at the time of sentencing, and can lead to a harsher penalty than the ordinary citizen.
The maximum penalty for fraud in NSW is ten years imprisonment, and corrupt lawyers certainly should not expect leniency simply because their own actions have caused them to lose their careers.
Vance was sentenced to four years and six months for his crimes.
He was also struck from the list of practising solicitors and had to repay $500,000 back to the estate of Cutts, who had tragically passed-away by the time the case was finalised.
Fortunately, if you need a lawyer, there are lots of steps you can take to make sure you or your family don’t fall into the clutches of someone who is less than above-board.
The NSW Law Society has a register of lawyers who have had complaints made about them as well as what disciplinary actions have been taken against them.
You can check this list before hiring if you are concerned, or if you do have serious problems with your current lawyer, you can make a complaint.
The Law Society has the power to investigate and discipline a lawyer who is not acting appropriately.
But lawyers who blatantly defraud their clients are in the very small minority.
Most lawyers are honest and ethical, and will do their utmost to further their clients’ interests.
And while some lawyers only act in their own interests, this is the exception rather than the rule, and all lawyers shouldn’t be written-off because of the actions of just a few.