Lawyers are constantly under the microscope, too often deemed untrustworthy by members of the public who have been duped by an unscrupulous minority.
Yet it would be unfair to paint all attorneys-at-law with the same, tarry, brush.
But the time has come in Barbados for those lawyers who make it a habit of misusing their client’s funds to be disbarred and imprisoned.
There are far too many incidences occurring where lawyers, acting on behalf of their clients, have access to funds belonging to them but for whatever reason choose not to honour those payments.
Attorneys have a duty to keep their client’s funds or property secure and separate from their own.
It is unacceptable for a client to be waiting months, far fewer years, for a lawyer to pay them what is rightfully theirs.
Lawyers are first and foremost human beings, who should be guided by their consciences.
In many of these cases, the clients who are awaiting these funds are at the point of desperation.
How, therefore, can any lawyer sit idly by and watch that person suffer while their money just sits on a bank account?
We believe such actions should be seen in the same light as theft. We trust the courts agree.
Convicted thieves are often given custodial sentences. But while there have been instances of lawyers in Barbados being disbarred, there has only ever been one instance where a lawyer was sentenced to serve time in prison.
Ironically, he appealed the decision and was eventually released.
In one of the most highly-publicised cases in recent years, then Speaker of the House Michael Carrington was ordered by the court to pay his client $200,000, the proceeds of a property sale.
Carrington’s client was never given a reason as to why he had to wait so long to receive his money despite several requests.
The attorney was never disciplined by the Barbados Bar Association for his actions.
The money was eventually paid and Carrington walked away, with only his pride and reputation taking a hit.
Earlier this year, Joyce Griffith was struck off by the Court of Appeals for misappropriation of a client’s funds.
And in a more recent instance, an attorney is alleged to have refused to pay his client the $2 million which he was awarded over 20 years ago.
While disbarment is a fitting punishment, a stronger message needs to be sent to all judicial officers.
It should not merely be a case where a lawyer commits such an act and receives a slap on the wrist, only to turn around and do the same thing to another client.
In November last year, an Australian lawyer was sentenced to serve seven-and-a-half years for stealing almost $2 million from her clients.
Helen Marie Tolson, a 45-year-old mother of three, used the $1.96 million she stole to bolster her husband’s business, pay off personal debts and buy new cars.
In handing down the sentence, the ruling judge described Tolson’s actions as “a horrific breach of trust” and “despicable behaviour”.
In the US, a prominent lawyer who also stole millions of dollars from his client was also sentenced to time in prison.
Stuart A. Schlesinger, 76, misappropriated the funds from settlements he had negotiated in cases involving medical malpractice and other injuries and then used the money to pay expenses including mortgage bills, the government had alleged.
He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison in 2016.
There are similar stories in Barbados. They differ substantially from the ones above in their ending.
Dare we ask the lawyer-full House of Assembly to take a strong stand for just and fair representation and fiduciary responsibility by lawyers for their clients?