Top lawyer defends charges over fees

A top office-holder of the Law Society of South Africa, who failed to turn up at his disciplinary inquiry last week, has been accused of sitting on some clients’ road accident pay-outs and taking too much from others.

Willie Seriti, the co-chair of the law society, was supposed to undergo an inquiry into 12 complaints last Wednesday, but faxed the officials conducting the probe at the Law Society of the Transvaal shortly before it was supposed to get under way.
He informed them he was “indisposed” and would not be able to attend.

The Law Society of South Africa is the national umbrella body for all South Africa’s provincial law societies. The most serious of the complaints lodged against Seriti involves the receipt, on a client’s behalf, of R162 358 from the Road Accident Fund, the state institution that dispenses damages to victims of road accidents.

Seriti, senior partner at Seriti Mavundla & Partners in Pretoria, received the money in mid-1995. In November 1997, the client, Marks Johnson, complained to the fund he had received nothing. The fund reported the matter to the Law Society of the Transvaal, which in turn contacted Seriti. It was only after that contact that the law firm paid Johnson R124 000.

Seriti said this week that none of the charges against him was serious, that he had “satisfactory explanations” to rebut all the allegations against him and that his firm had done nothing wrong. Seriti said he had been unable to get hold of Johnson, who currently lives in Madibe, outside Mafeking.

“The fact of the matter is that we could not contact him despite several attempts. We always had that money held in trust. Besides that, he changed addresses according to him about twice or thrice.” Asked why the firm had been able to contact Johnson after receiving the complaint from the Law Society, he said: “I think he ended up coming because we contacted him and some other people contacted him, and he then decided to come to us.”

It is understood that several of the charges against Seriti relate to touting - actively soliciting road accident victims in hospitals. But Seriti denies he faces any touting charges. Asked about Johnson’s claim that he was approached in hospital by an agent acting for the firm, Seriti said he could not remember, and had not explored the matter as it was not one of the charges against him.

Seriti added that his firm still had the case files of all the complainants lined up at the law society, the majority of which relate to overcharging. There is another complaint, however, in which an accident victim, R Shongwe, was paid out R23 316, via Seriti, but only received some of her money five years after the accident. The R23 316 pay-out came in two portions: a R12 000 lump sum and about R11 000 in costs.

The accident took place in 1993 and the Road Accident Fund paid out about two years later. By 1998 Shongwe had not received anything, and so complained to the fund. She gave it two statements, in February and July. In May of that year, she visited Seriti and claimed subsequently to the fund that he had told her that they would pay R9 000.

Shongwe claimed Seriti had explained that the fund had paid out R12 000 and that R3 000 would be deducted for legal fees. Seriti said he had not been able to pay Shongwe because he had not been able to find her. Seriti’s disciplinary inquiry is now set down for June. Several of the complainants travelled to Pretoria last week to give evidence.

He said of all the cases: “If there was something to hide one could have either destroyed the files or said we don’t have these files. There could be a hundred and one explanations why one accounted in a particular way. The matter of Johnson—I knew it was going to cause problems. We have got a valid explanation.” He expressed misgivings about having the charges against him aired in the press before they were subjected to scrutiny by the disciplinary inquiry, saying he could be perceived as guilty before being tried.

Seriti recalled an incident several years ago in which officials from the Office for Serious Economic Offences had raided his firm for files on accident victim cases, and how the incident had been reported in the press. Seriti said the fraud officers had questioned him but, after hearing his explanations, had said they could not find any evidence of impropriety. However, the damage to his firm’s reputation had already been done by the press coverage.

The head of the Transvaal Law Society’s disciplinary arm, Piet Langenhoven, declined to discuss the details of the allegations. Langenhoven said last week, however, that the charges were all “serious” and related to overcharging.

Seriti said that it was unfortunate that the Mail & Guardian had, in its report about the complaints against him last week, also mentioned the wider context of government’s drive to root out impropriety in law firms handling Road Accident Fund claims. “It came amidst the allegations of millions, although there are no millions involved in these complaints about me.”

The Heath commission is preparing to investigate complaints against accident attorneys, a group of whom announced in the weekend press they were going to challenge the Heath probe.

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