A client who was hoping to own a half a million-dollar home is, instead, now dependent on welfare and the loss of the investment she entrusted to her lawyer was today compared to suffering an aneurysm.
The analogy came from both the prosecution and the High court judge just before attorney-at-law Cheraine Parris was sentenced to four years in prison. She is the second lawyer, in just under a year, to be jailed for theft of a client’s money. In September 2019, Vonda Pile was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing $191 416. 39 from a former client.
Parris had admitted to stealing $302,000 belonging to Ashleigh Morrison between April 15 and August 16, 2010. She also pleaded guilty to engaging in money laundering by conducting a series of transactions in moving the cash, being the proceeds of crime.
The money had been earmarked for the purchase of the condominium at which Morrison was residing. The complainant had deposited in Parris’ account, a total of $462,000. The $302 000 represented the balance which remained unreimbursed by the lawyer.
Parris’ stalled attempts at repaying the money only brought it to $292,000 as of today’s sentencing – a ten-year delay frowned upon by the court, with Justice Randall Worrell stating that the slightly reduced sum was only a “spit away from $300 000”. The disgraced attorney has requested, and was given, at least two adjournments to make payments towards the outstanding sum. She had indicated that she was awaiting some assistance from a family member who had been finalising a land sale.
Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Allison Seale, in his lengthy submissions, spoke of the delinquency in paying the money, suggesting that $3 000 could have been paid monthly since 2010 when the matter came to light.
According to Seale, Parris could have “cut and contrived” if she had any intentions to repay. The prosecutor also spoke of lawyers’ “disillusions of grandeur” where some have the idea that they had to live a certain “lawyer lifestyle” instead of “living within their means”.
New lawyers, he said, needed better examples to follow and those attorneys who charged exorbitant fees or stole clients’ money tarnished the reputation of other lawyers. He suggested lawyers had to “think about volume at reasonable rates” instead of charging large sums for one job.
“One hundred, one dollars is still $100,” he said.
The leading prosecutor referred to Parris’ actions as “greedy”. He said the lawyer had a “half a million-dollar client” and instead of using the opportunity to bring similar clients into the market, she misused it.
He further stated that persons relied on lawyers to make certain transactions and the money placed in Parris’ trust had been “spirited away”, leaving Morrison to live on welfare.
“Having lived a certain life… she now has nothing,” the deputy DPP said.
Morrison’s dire situation was highlighted in the submissions from both sides. Mitchell Gittens revisited a pre-sentencing report that said Morris had suffered physically, psychologically and faced health challenges.
Seale informed the court that he was constantly bombarded with calls from the complainant inquiring about the repayment of the money and the court also heard that Morrison was ecstatic when she got news of the $10 000. Her reaction was described as “breaking her neck” by “running to her attorney” for that repaid sum.
Although Seale spoke with dismay at the factors in the case, he called for a creative sentence to allow for restorative justice.
“Creative sentences that take into account the social dynamics we live in,” he told the court.
He said sitting in prison while the victim still suffered was not reasonable. Seale cited the case McCollin vs R which has similar facts. The judge in the matter suggested that such circumstances warranted an immediate custodial sentence but showed leniency in order for the complainant to be repaid. Seale called for a final period for repayment with an alternative custodial sentence.
Justice Worrell said he understood Seale’s call for restorative justice because of the special circumstances of the complainant. However, he looked at the fact that Parris had ten years to repay. He also said that evidence showed that Parris was now living off the desires of family and friends and there was no indication that the money would be repaid.
“The aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors…there was a great breach of trust [that was] detrimental to the complainant.”
Parris’ attorney, Angella Mitchell-Gittens drew the court’s attention to the mitigating factors including Parris’ young age, attempts to repay, good character and absence of previous convictions but as Justice Worrell concluded, these paled in comparison to the aggravating features of the case.
Parris was sentenced to four years on the first count of theft and another four years to run concurrently on the money laundering offence. (TS)