By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Back in 2012, Mr and Mrs H retained Boulevarde Lawyers in the lakeside suburb of Toronto in Lake Macquarie to prepare documents and find them legal representation in Vanuatu in relation to the sale of drilling machines.
The sole principal of the law firm, Steven John Connolly, was also retained by Mr H to represent him in a Local Court case. On 3 October 2012, $2,500 was deposited into the law firm’s trust account and credited to the H Local Court matter trust ledger.
However, Mr Connolly debited the $2,500 from the trust ledger on 22 October and withdrew that money from the Boulevarde Lawyers trust account. Then on 2 November, the lawyer rendered a tax invoice in regard to the H Local Court matter for $2,195.
It was later heard that Mr Connolly had mishandled the trust money of at least four other clients.
In January 2013, after having tried to contact Mr Connolly on several occasions, Mrs H finally got through to him and asked for the couple’s files and the release of their money from the firm’s trust account.
The daughter of Mr and Mrs H, Ms K, was also receiving legal assistance from Mr Connolly. On the morning of 23 January 2013, Ms K was at the law practice, when the solicitor is reported to have walked out of his office with his fly undone and proceeded to zip it up in front of her.
Later that afternoon, Mrs H attended the office to ask for her money back. Mr Connolly then began to complain about his personal problems. He said he had testicular cancer and proceeded to show his client three or four photos of his testicles, which were stored on his mobile phone.
Ms H recalled that one of the photos depicted a scar.
Three days later, Mrs H returned to the offices of Boulevarde Lawyers to collect the files, along with the $2,500 and an itemised account. Mr Connolly informed her that they owed all but $477.50 of the money.
Mr and Mrs H then repeatedly asked the lawyer for an itemised account. Mrs H emailed him twice in April 2013, but Mr Connolly failed to provide the requested bill.
Law Society takes action
The Council of the Law Society of NSW filed disciplinary proceedings against Mr Connolly in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). It sought a finding of professional misconduct, based on nine grounds.
The first four were in relation to breaching four sections of the Legal Profession Act 2004 (the Act), regarding the mishandling of trust money belonging to Mr and Mrs H, along with several other clients.
The Law Society submitted that Mr Connelly contravened section 255 of the Act, which sets out appropriate procedures for holding, disbursing and accounting for trust money, as well as section 261, which outlines what law firms are permitted to do when dealing with trust money.
The Act was repealed and replaced by the Legal Profession Uniform Law on 1 July 2015. However, the new legislation provides that a complaint or investigation begun before its commencement can be dealt with under the earlier legislation.
The list goes on
The Law Society submitted that Mr Connolly breached clause 88 of Legal Profession Regulation 2005 (the Regulation), which provides the correct procedures for withdrawing trust money for legal costs.
The Regulation was also repealed in July 2015, and replaced by the Legal Profession Uniform Regulations 2015. However, the same transitional provisions apply.
It was also put forth that Mr Connolly had caused a deficiency in the trust account and/or trust account ledgers, engaged in unethical conduct when pressuring a client to lie on a legal form and backdate it, and failed to provide an itemised account when asked to do so.
Finally, it was submitted the lawyer behaved inappropriately when showing Mrs H the photos of his genitals.
Failure to attend
The Law Society filed proceedings against Mr Connelly in October 2015, but the NCAT proceedings were stalled for several months.
Mr Connelly claimed that he couldn’t deal with the proceedings at the time due to a kidnapping incident in May that year, where his life had been threatened. He asserted that he had been suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the crime.
After several false starts, the hearing finally commenced on 28 August last year, but Mr Connelly failed to attend.
The next day, the lawyer appeared via telephone. The matter was adjourned again to allow Mr Connelly to produce documentation in defence of the allegations.
However, no documentation was forthcoming and on 1 March this year, proceedings came before NCAT once again. Mr Connelly appeared in person for the first time, but he eventually withdrew from the proceedings as he feared being traumatised by the allegations against him.
The evidence against
Two affidavits were submitted by the Law Society. The first was by James Sofiak, a trust account investigator. Mr Sofiak concluded that Mr Connelly’s trust account documentation was incomplete and did not fully comply with the legislation.
The affidavit of Natasha Smith, a solicitor who’d been employed by Boulevarde Lawyers, outlined that Mr Connelly had been transferring costs from the firm’s trust account, as well as overcharging clients.
Ms Smith also submitted text messages from Mr Connelly, where he had asked her to make sure a trust fund cheque had been deposited, so it would clear in time for him to be able to pay the next week’s wages.
Unfit to practice
NCAT Principal Member Francis Marks, Senior Member Norman Saul Isenberg and General Member Bruce Thomson found that all of the grounds were made out. The panel found that Mr Connelly had indeed breached each of the four sections of the Act, along with the clause in the Regulation, and was guilty of professional misconduct.
In regard to the images of his genitalia, the members remarked, “We are of the opinion that showing her photographs of his testicles constituted behaviour which was inappropriate for a solicitor to engage in during the course of a meeting with a client.”
However, the panel fell short of finding the behaviour constituted misconduct under the Act..
The end of the road
“Given the nature and extent of his misconduct, and the likelihood that his obvious present unfitness to practice law will continue indefinitely… the appropriate protective order is that his name be removed from the roll of local lawyers,” the NCAT panellists ordered.
Mr Connelly was also ordered to pay the costs of the Law Society of NSW “in an amount assessed in default of agreement.”