New Zealand Law Society - Lawyers Complaints Service: Struck off after misappropriating client funds

Lawyers Complaints Service: Struck off after misappropriating client funds

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Anthony Vincent Ram has been struck off after he was found guilty of three charges of misconduct, including misappropriating more than $150,000 of client funds.

In [2014] NZLCDT 76, the former Auckland lawyer was also ordered to pay the maximum $25,000 compensation on each of two charges he was found guilty of.

Mr W had owned a house in New Zealand which was sold by mortgagee sale in 2008. There was a surplus, and in May 2009 Mr W instructed Mr Ram to receive it and hold it on his behalf.

Although Mr Ram only held a practising certificate as an employed barrister and solicitor (supposedly an in-house lawyer), he held himself out to the client and to the firm disbursing the funds as able to act.

His ostensible “employer” was a company, Capital Trust (NZ) Limited, in which Mr Ram was the major shareholder and sole director. Effectively, he was practising on his own account.

Mr Ram received the $154,835.81 sale proceeds in June 2009. Subsequent investigations by a forensic accountant have tracked these funds into either personal accounts of Mr Ram, or into accounts of companies which are “alter ego” companies – fully owned and directed by Mr Ram.

After two years of email correspondence with Mr Ram, Mr W became suspicious. He had his own difficulties in Hong Kong, where he lived, and was not able to come to New Zealand until 2013. Having failed to locate Mr Ram or to receive a satisfactory explanation as to the whereabouts of his funds, he complained to the Law Society.

That complaint led to Mr Ram being charged with:

  • misappropriation of client funds;
  • practising contrary to his practising certificate; and
  • failing to respond to a notice to produce files and other records to the standards committee.

In response to the allegation of misappropriation of client funds, Mr Ram provided the Law Society a number of responses, including a letter of 14 July 2013, in which he attacked the character of the complainant and distracted from the essence of the complaint by discussing various tax investigations involving the complainant and indicated he was still to receive information from the complainant.

His arguments were to the effect that he was unable to properly pay out the funds which he had “invested” on behalf of Mr W because he was unclear about his client’s bankruptcy status and had been misled by his client. None of the matters he raised addressed why the funds had been applied for the practitioner’s own purposes.

“It is quite clear from the careful and unchallenged forensic evidence that Mr Ram has simply stolen these funds from his client and put them to his own use,” the Tribunal said. That was “clearly misconduct”, being disgraceful and dishonourable.

The Tribunal also found that Mr Ram was guilty of misconduct because he “was clearly holding himself out as practising on his own account while having obtained a practising certificate on 20 February 2009 purportedly as an in-house counsel for Capital Trust (NZ) Ltd, his own company.

“In September of that year Mr Ram advised the Law Society that he was leaving the employment of Capital Trust to commence practice as a barrister.

“It was not until April of 2010 that he advised the Law Society further that he had commenced employment [as a barrister] on 15 February 2010. He was not granted a practising certificate as an employed barrister until 14 May 2010.”

If Mr Ram was not “wilful” in his holding himself out to be employed as in-house counsel of a company largely owned and directed by him, then he was at least “reckless”, the Tribunal said.

On 20 August 2013, the standards committee sent Mr Ram a notice under s 147(2)(a) of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. This notice required Mr Ram to provide his complete file in relation to Mr W, and invoices issued in respect of his attendances on Mr W, and copies of all bank records to that date in relation to the funds received on behalf of Mr W.

“Instead of providing the documentation requested, Mr Ram provided a written response in which he set out the full text of s 147 and contended he had complied with all of his obligations under the Rules of Conduct and Client Care,” the Tribunal said.

“He again alleged criminal conduct on behalf of his client and claimed Mr W’s complaints to be defamatory.

“It was not until 4 March 2014 that he provided the large packet of documents which included emails, costs agreement and ‘investment agreement’ correspondence and submissions. The evidence establishes that the practitioner has never provided all of the documentation requested in the notice. Certainly he did not provide the banking records which would appear to have been crucial to the investigation at hand,” the Tribunal said.

“We consider that the standards committee has made out a strong case to infer the non-compliance is wilful or reckless.”

As well as being struck off and ordered to pay $50,000 compensation, Mr Ram was ordered to pay $16,038.36 standards committee costs and $2,203 Tribunal costs.

The Tribunal’s findings are under appeal

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