Earlier this week the names of Ronald and Darren Bobroff were finally struck from the Roll of Attorneys by a full bench of the High Court in Pretoria.
It follows a five-year protracted legal battle instigated by road accident victim Matthew Graham and his wife Jennifer. Matthew had been severely injured in a road accident and Jennifer had approached Ronald Bobroff & Partners to prosecute Matthew’s claim against the Road Accident Fund (RAF). He alleged that the Bobroffs had shortchanged him.
The Bobroffs are currently fugitives from the South African criminal justice system having bolted for Australia in March 2016 days before they had agreed to hand themselves over to the Hawks in order to be arrested and bailed.
A brief background
The Contingency Fees Act came into operation in April 1999. Its intention was to do away with a common law prohibition against contingency fee litigation and make justice accessible to those that could not afford it. It did not contemplate litigation against the RAF in respect of road accident claims. Furthermore, its stringent provisions made its impermissible for attorneys to enter contingency fee agreements with clients who wish to prosecute a claim against the RAF.
Ronald Bobroff, at the time, sat on the council of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP) and was later its President. It was during his tenure that the LSNP Council decided to allow its members to act outside of the law and sign up RAF claimants using what was called a Common Law Contingency Fee Agreement (CLCFA).
These agreements were in vogue with a coterie in the attorneys’ profession until 2014 when the Constitutional Court declared that its use had always been illegal. At the time, LSNP vice president CP Fourie, when announcing the decision to permit use of the illegal agreement stated: “A step forward? For sure!” In striking down these agreements the Constitutional Court emphasised that “the right of access to justice is that of the legal practitioners’ clients, not the rights of the legal practitioners themselves”.
Opposed every step of the way
After the Grahams launched their case against RBP and the Bobroffs, it was acrimoniously litigated every step of the way to the Constitutional Court. Every level of the South African judiciary found against the Bobroffs. They never won a single skirmish. Along the way Judge Elias Matojane convicted them of contempt of court. (The fine remains unpaid.)
Judge John Murphy criticised the Bobroffs: “I agree with counsel for the Grahams that on the probabilities this application was resorted to as a calculated decision by the Bobroffs to delay the disciplinary and investigative process. Sight must not be lost of the prior litigation involving the respondents and the fact that they are officers of this court. As attorneys, they should be playing open cards with the court and the Law Society.”
Forensic audit report
Late in 2015 the Bobroffs finally conceded that inspectors from the LSNP could undertake an inspection of RBP’s books and records. By February 2015 the LSNP inspectors filed their damming report at court. It found that the Bobroffs:
- employed various tactics to unlawfully reduce [their] income tax and VAT liabilities.
- failed to ensure that trust monies were kept separate from other monies.
- failed to ensure that, when making a transfer from their trust banking account to their business banking account, that the amount transferred was identifiable and did not exceed the amount due to the firm.
- failed to ensure that withdrawals from their trust banking account were made only to or for or on behalf of trust creditors of the firm or as transfers to their business bank account in respect of fees or disbursements due to the firm.
- failed to pay amounts due to clients within a reasonable time.
- failed to pay the reasonable fees and disbursements of other practitioners, medical practitioners and other experts within a reasonable time.
- made themselves guilty of unprofessional, dishonourable or unworthy conduct by overreaching clients.
- failed to retain their accounting records for a period of five years.
The most devastating finding was that the Bobroffs’ trust account had “lost its identity”. They had mixed their clients funds with their own.
The Bobroffs refused to challenge these allegations. Late last month they sought to oppose their striking off hearing saying that they had appointed a forensic accountant to review the very documents that they had handed over to the LSNP inspectors and that this accountant would only be able to commence her inspection in June 2017.
Striking off hearing
Pretoria Judges Natu Ranchod and Nicoline Janse van Nieuwenhuizen presided. The Bobroffs’ counsel took a technical point: his clients did not have proper service of the LSNP striking off application and that the matter should be postponed until it was formally served. Ronald Bobroff had stated in an affidavit that he had attempted unsuccessfully since May of this year to find an attorney to represent them in the striking off. Judge Van Nieuwenhuizen pointed out that it was inconceivable that anyone would seek to appoint an attorney to oppose a matter for which he did not have any knowledge. Counsel packed his bags and left, and the merits of the striking off were unopposed.
The remaining director of RBP, Stephen Bezuidenhout, was not struck off and remains as the sole director of RBP.
The Judges will hand down written reasons for the striking off next year.
Attorney Anthony Millar, who has represented fourteen clients against the Bobroffs, welcomed the judgment: “Finally the public are protected from the predations of the father and son duo”.
The Grahams’ attorney, George van Niekerk told Moneyweb: “I am pleased we have reached this milestone. The next step is to make sure that Ronald and Darren Bobroff are brought to justice in South Africa, and to ensure redress for the victims of their practice.”
Cora van der Merwe, who blew the whistle on the Bobroffs, was in court when the order was handed down. She told Moneyweb: “I didn’t feel anything. I was not glad. I was not sad. When I walked out of the court building I felt that I now had peace because justice was well and truly served.”
The Bobroffs did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
In an urgent application filed yesterday the Bobroffs stated that they would be appealing the order striking their names of the Roll of Attorneys.
Read this application.
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