Durban - Fourteen years after fleeing South Africa amid allegations that he had stolen money from clients and business associates, disbarred lawyer Ian Stokes will finally stand trial in the Durban High Court next week.
But the charges in the present indictment are a far cry in number and value from those which the State initially accused him of.
The prosecutor will have several hurdles to clear at the start of the trial, because the State wishes to admit evidence from two witnesses who are dead and one who is living overseas and cannot be traced.
This week, when Stokes made a brief appearance in the Durban High Court, Judge Esther Steyn warned the State and the defence that the trial would proceed next Thursday and would continue for all the days it had been set down.
She ordered Stokes’s advocate Jimmy Howse, who was not at court, to come to chambers before then for a pre-trial conference to iron out any potential problems.
Stokes, who ran his practice from La Lucia Ridge, fled in 2000.
He was accused of plundering his trust account and defrauding businessmen who had invested in a Road Accident Fund claims business he ran. The value of his crimes was said then to be about R20million.
He was extradited from the US in 2004 on an indictment which reflected theft of trust funds worth R6.8m and fraud of about R11m.
In 2007, he won a significant battle after successfully arguing that, in terms of an internationally recognised “rule of speciality”, he could only be tried for offences on which his extradition was sought.
The impact of this was that two fraud charges involving R9m fell away.
Over the years, Stokes has been presented with several indictments by the State but the final one presently before the court reflects no fraud charges and only one charge of theft “by general deficiency” in his trust account involving 10 clients and just more than R8m.
The indictment includes about R800 000 (in total) that was deposited through conveyancing transactions by four clients, including former Springbok and Sharks player Stefan Terblanche.
These people were all re-imbursed by the Attorneys Fidelity Fund and will have to come to court to testify in support of the State’s case.
Another witness will be Stokes’s former best friend and best man at his wedding, Durban North businessman Garth O’Connor, who, according to the indictment, gave Stokes R3.5 million “in trust” for Jet Therapy franchises.
According to records at the Durban High Court, he made a successful claim for more than R5m from the Fidelity Fund. But the fund is now suing for the money back, alleging that O’Connor lied, that the money was given to Stokes to “avoid the consequences of his own insolvency and his liability to the tax man”.
Stokes is expected to testify at this trial when his own criminal matter is over.
O’Connor - as a key witness in the criminal trial - could also suffer other credibility issues after a judge hearing a related matter described him as “the worst witness I have ever come across in my more than 35 years’ experience in the legal profession”.
Acting Judge Sytze Alkema was presiding over a matter in which businessman Robert Mauer attempted to sue the Fidelity Fund for R14m, claiming he too had given the money to Stokes “in trust” as an investment in the Road Accident Fund business and to purchase a Jet Therapy franchise.
O’Connor gave evidence and the judge described him as the “most arrogant and self-centred witness I have ever seen”.
Mauer, who lost that case, is listed on the present indictment as a witness who lost R1.9m, no longer lives in South Africa and, sources said, cannot be traced.
State advocate Andre Ludick has now served Stokes’s legal team with notice that he will make an application to have Mauer’s statement admitted as evidence without him testifying.
Similar applications are to be made for statements and reports authored by Pete Schoerie, the trustee of Stokes’s insolvent estate and Frik Laubser, his forensic investigator both of whom have died.
Stokes is expected to plead not guilty to all charges.