By Blake O’Connor and Ugur Nedim
A Sydney solicitor has been ‘struck off’ after the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) found he grossly overcharged, misled and stole money from clients.
Last week, 86-year old Bruce Hocking was removed from the roll of lawyers when NCAT ruled he is “no longer a fit and proper person to engage in legal practice”.
The misconduct occurred between July 2009 and January 2014 when Mr Hocking deducted legal fees from dividends that should have been paid directly to clients. The lawyer did not have authority to engage in this conduct. NCAT found that:
“In some cases the whole of the dividend was appropriated on account of costs and disbursements… clients had not only experienced the substantial losses they suffered as investors… but also suffered the further indignity of being deceived regarding the fees they would be charged, and having their dividends milked for additional fees”.
The civil lawyer’s cost agreement required clients to pay a one-off fee of $550, and allowed for legal costs to be received “as the court may allow” if claim was successful. However, the lawyer’s appropriation of dividends payable to clients went well beyond the scope of that agreement.
The tribunal further found that Hocking misappropriated funds that were supposed to be paid to barristers briefed by his law firm. The money was used to “prop up” the firm’s office account which was significantly in overdraft.
The firm, DC Legal, has since been wound up.
This is not the first time Mr Hocking has engaged in professional misconduct.
In 1968, the lawyer was struck off for remarkably similar conduct, including “… appropriating to his own use monies paid as costs for work done as a partner of his firm”.
He was 38-years-old and had 15 years of experience at the time. He later reapplied for his practising certificate which was ultimately reinstated by the Law Society some thirty years later, when he was aged 68.
Misconduct by lawyers
Mr Hocking’s case is just one of many where lawyers have been struck off for engaging in professional misconduct.
Lawyers are required to abide by strict codes of conduct, which cover all aspects of the job, including the way they communicate with clients and other professionals, confidentiality, how they charge clients, and what they do with the money they receive.
Lawyers are prohibited from engaging in conduct that demonstrates they are not a fit and proper person to practice law, or that could bring the profession into disrepute.
This can include inappropriate behaviour towards clients, deception and fraudulent conduct such as overcharging or misappropriating funds – all of which can amount to professional misconduct.
Clients who have fallen victim to such conduct are able to make a formal complaint to the Legal Services Commissioner.