Cape Town - A Legal Aid attorney found herself taking to the witness stand on Tuesday when her client decided to change her guilty plea and take on a new defence lawyer.
The issue of attorney-client privilege took centre stage at the Bellville Specialised Commercial Crime Court in the fraud case against Najwa Taliep.
Taliep, 41, faces 631 counts of fraud involving almost R1 million.
She was the personal assistant of auctioneer Julius Buchinsky and had access to his business and personal bank accounts.
She initially pleaded guilty to having transferred R961 081 from accounts in the names of Julius Buch- insky Organisation, SA Sale Promotions and Julius Buchinsky into her two personal bank accounts.
The transfers allegedly took place between January 2008 and December 2010.
Taliep allegedly reflected the fraudulent transfers as payments to the Buchinsky clients or as day-to-day expenses.
When she first appeared in court she was represented by Legal Aid attorney Hayley Lawrence.
She pleaded guilty to all the charges.
Taliep has since changed lawyers and is now represented by William Booth.
She has appealed to the court to “change a plea of guilty to one of not guilty because her ex-attorney ignored a valid defence”.
On Tuesday, the court first heard arguments as to whether it was in the interest of justice to call Lawrence to the stand.
Booth objected, saying client-attorney privilege was at risk, as he did not know what she would say.
However, magistrate Sabrina Sonnenberg granted the State’s application for Lawrence to testify.
Lawrence told the court Taliep had initially hired a private lawyer and then applied for Legal Aid on September 6 last year.
She had qualified on the grounds of her financial background and salary.
Lawrence said she was prepared and had four lever-arch files of bank statements and financial documents.
The two had consulted on several occasions.
She said she had explained legal consequences of the plea agreement Taliep had signed.
Regarding the potential breach of client-attorney privilege, State advocate Zama Matayi argued that Lawrence’s “image” was on the line.
The only way to clear her name was for her to put her side of the story to the court.
“I don’t think that is the object of the proceedings. If Lawrence wanted to do that there are other forums to do that – this inquiry is not about that aspect,” he said.
Sonnenberg said Taliep’s right to client-attorney privilege did not weigh heavier than the court’s right to the truth. She ruled that Lawrence had a right to testify.
The matter is set to continue on Friday.