Pretoria advocate struck off roll for hoodwinking colleagues

A Pretoria advocate who stole money from colleagues - and then concocted a story and bank statements to try convince a court otherwise - has been struck off the roll of advocates, following a Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) order on Thursday.

The Pretoria Society of Advocates approached the SCA after questioning the appropriateness of a High Court's decision to suspend Margaret van Zyl from practising for 18 months.

While the High Court found her conduct 'reprehensible', it seemingly decided not to strike her name from the roll because she had shown remorse, had repaid the money and was a first offender.

But Judge Steven Majiedt found that the High Court had misdirected itself and that the prime consideration was "the protection of the public". Four judges concurred with his order.

'A floor fund'

Van Zyl, who had operated from the High Court Chambers in Pretoria, and a senior counsel had administered a "floor fund" between October 2009 and August 2011.

Staff on the second floor voluntarily contributed R100 to this fund every month to pay certain allowances and for other expenses, such as social functions.

Twenty of them also made a once-off contribution of R300 to buy new kitchen equipment.

The two advocates were responsible for diligently managing finances, making decisions together, communicating all expenses and withdrawals, and meticulous record-keeping.

Instead, a protracted drama ensued in which funds were needed. She withheld the bank card from the senior counsel and he eventually decided to cancel the card and get a new one.

Van Zyl left the chambers in August 2011 without handing him the floor fund files and orally reporting to him.

It was also an uphill battle for the senior counsel to get the funds back.

When the matter reached court, she did not contest most of these events in her answering affidavit.

She said she had not acted dishonestly and had not misappropriated any funds.

"She alluded to the numerous difficulties she had experienced in her personal life at that time and proffered an apology to her colleagues for her conduct," Majiedt said.

'Theft, forgery and uttering and perjury'

However, she admitted in a supplementary affidavit later on that she had misled the court with funds and also manipulated various elements in her credit card statement that was filed.

She apologised for the unbecoming conduct and explained that she had used the money to assist her mother.

Majiedt said these were serious incidents of misconduct, and amounted to the criminal offences of theft, forgery and uttering and perjury.

"They involve acts of calculated dishonesty and are in my view indicative of a serious character defect, rather than a mere moral lapse."

He found the High Court had misdirected itself, not only with its factual findings but also its erroneous application of the law to the facts.

"This was not the impulsive telling of a lie, but protracted chicanery. The respondent's (Van Zyl's) deceit, concealment and dishonesty continued over a long time. And it was carefully planned to hoodwink her senior colleagues and the court," he said.

"In the premises, the respondent is not a fit and proper person to continue practising as an advocate... The respondent is ordered to pay the costs of the application on the scale as between attorney and client."

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