A prominent attorney working on reform of disciplinary procedures for attorneys, says there are options on the table to help the profession root out corrupt members and continue to rebuild the name of the profession.
Marguerite Woodstock Riley QC, who was called to the Bar in Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, believes a suggestion to remove temptation from lawyers who may be prone to wrongfully use clients’ funds, particularly in land deals, could be achieved if two cheques were written, one in the attorney’s name for his fees and the other in the intended recipient.
She said this had now become the practice with the payment of personal injury claims and there was a proposal to adopt this stand in relation to other money matters.
“[The] proposal is to take the funds out of the hands of lawyers. Real estate transactions – withholding funds is clearly the area of most, if not all, of the cases of disbarment. There is a reasonable solution and it is pursued in personal injury claims where the payee writes two cheques – one to the attorney and one
to the client, so the attorney does not have the client’s funds.
“The reality is there should be no objection to not having those funds once your fees are secured or any expense that you had. Whatever complications that may arise . . . creative solutions should be considered,” she said today during an IMPACT Justice virtual public lecture on disciplinary procedures for attorneys titled: Does One Bad Apple Spoil the Whole Bunch? Protecting Against That Bad Apple.
During the lecture attended by jurists from the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as well as attorneys from Barbados and throughout the region, Woodstock-Riley lamented that while criticism was often levelled at young attorneys for misuse of clients’ funds, her experience showed that often it was experienced lawyers with longstanding practices that had found themselves in trouble with the Bar Association and the law courts.
The lawyer, who has been credited with reducing the backlog of complaints against lawyers before the Disciplinary Committee of the Barbados Bar Association, said: “Young lawyers have been called out for living the high life or . . . feeling what they should earn when they become a lawyer. Certainly the reality from my experience is that the majority of circumstances has not been young lawyers who are before the Disciplinary Committee for the most serious of offences.
“There have been many senior attorneys with substantial practices and we are left with the question as to why they are in the position they have found themselves in.”
Woodstock-Riley also called for increased education of the public on the options available to them when faced with a dispute with their attorney, including civil action.
“We note the reputation of the profession is tarnished. Persons are seen on the front page with attorneys being arrested for having taken funds but we still have persons who are putting blind faith in their lawyers and not taking action for some time after things occur.”
The senior attorney was also critical of persons who started complaints against lawyers and not follow through or take years before making complaints about
their attorneys’ actions.
“One problem we have seen as a Disciplinary Committee is the use of the Disciplinary Committee as a collection agency and that is something that has contributed to the back log because many times a complaint is filed simply to prod the attorney on to a resolution and to pay the funds, causing the matter to be adjourned over and over while money trickles in. That is not the role of the Disciplinary Committee.”
Calling for increased training for lawyers on managing income and expenses, she said earning a living for attorneys today who were not on retainer or not employed by an entity, had become difficult given the number of persons in practice.
Over the years several Barbadian lawyers have found themselves before the courts for theft, or in some instances, before the Bar Association relative to complaints of misappropriation of their clients’ funds.
Last year longstanding attorney-at-law Vonda Pile was sentenced to three years in prison for the theft of over $95 000 belonging to one of her clients.
She is currently on bail pending an appeal. Earlier this month fellow lawyer Cheraine Nicole Parris pleaded guilty to stealing more than $300 000 of her client’s money and was given a four-year jail term.