One of two attorneys suspended from practising as they face disciplinary proceedings over allegedly misappropriating more than R2 million from a trust fund intends challenging the judgment.
The South African Legal Practice Council (LPC) sought from the Free State High Court, Bloemfontein, to have the two attorneys – Izak Steenkamp and Rehan Coetzee – suspended from practising at another firm while investigations were under way against them.
Before the court-ordered suspension, both were practising attorneys and enrolled as such in the records of the LPC.
Steenkamp was admitted as an attorney in September 2002, and Coetzee in September 1999.
The Free State High court judgment read: “They initially practised under the name and style of Steenkamp, De Villiers and Coetzee. Following an investigation against the first and second respondents as a result of a deficit in their trust banking account, they closed that practice and joined the third respondent, Steenkamp and Jansen Incorporated, taking with them all the files, not subject to the investigations ... referred to.”
According to the court documents, while the respondents were directors of Steenkamp, De Villiers and Coetzee, there was a deficit in their trust account in the amount, alleged by the LPC to be at least R2 556 944.16.
“A curator bonis was appointed to administer the trust account. An amount of R2 048 925.84 was identified as misappropriated funds and there was an unidentified shortage of R508 018.32.
The former bookkeeper employed by the respondents at Steenkamp, De Villiers and Coetzee stole a large amount of money from the Trust account, but repaid an amount of R840 000, meaning that the Trust deficit prior to this payment was the amount R3 396 944.16,” the judgment read.
According to the LPC, they had received 127 complaints against the attorneys, their law firm Steenkamp and Jansen Inc and Theunis Jansen – the sole director of the firm.
In her judgment Judge Somaganthie “Soma” Naidoo described the complaints as being of “a serious nature”, and said that while Steenkamp was called upon to respond to the complaints, he failed to do so timeously.
Further to this, Steenkamp and Coetzee had closed the practice of Steenkamp, De Villiers and Coetzee “without informing the Law Society of such closure, as was required of them by the relevant rules; (and had) not yet submitted a final audit in respect of the closure of the practice of Steenkamp,De Villiers and Coetzee”.
Judge Naidoo said: “The former Attorneys’ Act and the then applicable Rules of the Free State Law Society, as well as the successor thereto, being the LPA and the current Code of Conduct provide in clear terms the duties and obligations of legal practitioners ... The highest standards of integrity, competence and diligence are expected of an attorney.
“In my view, the various complaints which were lodged against the respondents and which are still under investigation, merely highlight the need for the LPC to conduct proper investigations into those complaints, and to do so unhindered.
The respondents’ conduct has fallen far short of the high standards required by the relevant Act and Rules for the regulation of the legal profession.
“The complaints, as I indicated, are of a serious nature, and flout many of the provisions of the Attorneys’ Act, the LPA as well as the Rules and Code of Conduct,” said Judge Naidoo.
Both suspended attorneys were ordered to hand over their certification of admission to the registrar of the high court, and if they failed to do so within two weeks of the order, a sheriff was authorised to take possession of the certificates.
While enquiries to Steenkamp and the LPC were not answered by deadline, Coetzee said he would appeal against the court’s decision this week.
“Firstly I do not face any criminal charges. As a director of the firm Steenkamp, De Villiers & Coetzee, I have caught a professional assistant and bookkeeper of our firm misappropriating trust funds in 2015 and 2016.
“I reported it to the then Law Society of the Free State, who at first requested us to cease practice and later refused to issue us fidelity fund certificates to practise for our own account.
“Since 2017 we practised as professional assistants at Steenkamp & Jansen. We had to close our firm, since we could not practise without fidelity fund certificates.
“The then Law Society appointed a forensic investigator to investigate the misappropriation by the employees mentioned above. In 2021 we received notice to appear before a disciplinary hearing on charges that we did not have control over our trust account.
The disciplinary panel dismissed the matter and stated that having heard the evidence of the forensic investigator and her concessions, that it can not be appropriate to hold that there is evidence against us of failure to keep proper accounting records.”
Coetzee said he did not feel that justice was served.
“The LPC has failed to deal with the matter in an effective, fair and transparent manner as is required in terms of the act, but that we, after losing our firm and were unable to practise for our own account for seven years, (are) now again punished for something the disciplinary committee already exonerated us from,” said Coetzee.