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LEGAL PRACTICE COUNCIL

GroundUp demands a proper investigation into conduct of Lotteries Commission lawyer Lesley Ramulifho

GroundUp demands a proper investigation into conduct of Lotteries Commission lawyer Lesley Ramulifho
Attorney Lesley Ramulifho. (Photo: Supplied) | iStock | Groundup logo

The powers and duties of the Legal Practice Council in dealing with lawyers accused of wrongdoing will be in the spotlight this week in an application in which news agency GroundUp is challenging the dismissal, without proper investigation, of its misconduct complaint against an attorney it accuses of forgery and perjury.

GroundUp alleges that Pretoria-based attorney Leslie Ramulifho lied in his affidavit, and committed “patent fraud” in supporting documentation, when he launched an urgent application in the Pretoria High Court in 2019 aimed at securing an interdict barring the news agency from reporting on him, an order that it remove any articles already published, and a retraction.

That application was struck from the roll for lack of urgency.

The news agency subsequently lodged a complaint with the Legal Practice Council (LPC), but Ramulifho was let off the hook after a one-man Investigations Committee said the allegations were “hearsay” and Ramulifho had provided a satisfactory explanation.

“There is no reasonable prospect of success in preferring a charge of misconduct,” committee chair Yunus Mayat ruled in October 2020.

In an application set down to be heard by Johannesburg High Court Judge Seena Yacoob on Thursday, GroundUp is seeking to have this decision reviewed and set aside, and for an order that the complaint be heard afresh, arguing that the LPC is bound by the Legal Practice Act, and its own rules, to conduct a “proper investigation”.

‘Passive adjudication’

It argues that the LPC simply conducted a “passive adjudication rather than a proactive investigation” which was necessary for it to fulfil its statutory duties to protect the public against unscrupulous attorneys. 

The LPC has indicated it will abide by the decision of the court. 

Ramulifho is opposing the application. He has not filed an affidavit, but a notice in which he raises points of law. 

Ramulifho launched the interdict application after GroundUp published various articles by freelance journalist Ray Joseph about malfeasance at the National Lotteries Commission. 

Grant recipient ‘hijacked’

In them, Ramulifho and others were accused of “hijacking” a lottery grant recipient, Denzhe Primary Care NPO; that Denzhe’s funds were used to pay R530,000 to two of his Ocean Basket franchises and R5-million was paid to a firm of attorneys, Etienne Naude Attorneys, as part-payment for an R11-million property on the Mooikloof Equestrian Estate.

Submitting that these allegations were not true and he was thus entitled to the interdict, Ramulifho made statements under oath and put up documentary evidence.

GroundUp’s complaint to the LPC was made in the names of agency editor Nathan Geffen and Ray Joseph.

Their attorney Jacques Louw filed a separate complaint.

It consisted of 16 pages backed up by about 100 pages of annexures, “documentary evidence” which, they alleged, showed that Ramulifho had perjured himself and that the documents, including a bank statement and two proofs of payment — which apparently backed up his version that the R530,000 had been a loan which he had repaid — had been manipulated or were simply fraudulent. 

Affidavits ‘were forgeries’

Two supporting affidavits, GroundUp said, were forgeries and the “deponents”, one of them attorney Ettienne Naude, had confirmed they had not signed them.

Geffen, in his affidavit in the review application, said the complaint to the LPC did not deal with Ramulifho’s conduct in relation to Denzhe because “those are matters for the prosecuting authorities to investigate”.

Instead, it focused on his conduct as an attorney and an officer of the court in relation to the interdict application, the statements he made under oath and the “falsified documents”.

These were serious allegations against a legal practitioner, over which the LPC had disciplinary jurisdiction, Geffen said.

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But five months later, the LPC advised that the investigations committee had dismissed the complaint “out of hand” — and then advised that GroundUp could not lodge an internal appeal because an appeal tribunal and office of an ombudsman had not yet been established. 

Geffen said the dismissal of the complaint had been done without “a single investigative step”, as required by the act and the rules.

“The investigating committee has extensive powers but it conducted no investigation into the complaint whatsoever. Instead, it approached its task as though it was a judge in motion court, finding that the onus was on us to provide there was a basis on which a disciplinary committee might make a finding of misconduct.

“It applied a strict evidentiary standard to the documents we submitted and ultimately concluded that we had not done enough… instead of making its own inquiries in an attempt to gather the necessary facts, or test or augment the evidence we had provided, the committee dismissed the evidence provided out of hand on the basis that it was hearsay and not credible,” Geffen said.

“On the committee’s reasoning, before a complaint is made to the LPC, the complainant must first approach a high court to determine the facts — because evidence that has already passed judicial scrutiny is the only evidence the LPC will accept as evidence of misconduct.

“This is, frankly, an astonishing position for the LPC to take,” Geffen said.

“The committee committed an error in law and fundamentally misunderstood its role, its powers and its obligations.”

‘Hearsay’

In heads of argument filed with the court, Ramulifho’s advocate, Reimer Schoeman, said the complaint was based on “unsupported opinions and hearsay”.

These were subjective opinions “dressed up as legal conclusions”.

“The decision by the LPC was not a dismissal on the merits of the complaint. It was a dismissal on procedural irregularity because of the failure to produce prima facie evidence which would oblige the LPC to investigate further and to expend its resources.” 

Schoeman submitted that the act should be interpreted to “oblige a complainant to first provide prima facie evidence” which was in line with constitutional prescripts.

“The allegations must first be tested by an authority other than the LPC or supported by reasonable and credible verification, and then the relevant finding or appropriate verification must be presented to the LPC for investigation.”

Complaint ‘seriously flawed’

Schoeman said there were “serious flaws” in the complaint and questioned if any of the complainants held any qualification or experience in document examination to give credibility to the allegations that signatures were “suspect” or documents were forged.

While the complainants had suggested the committee could have made a few “simple phone calls” to determine the veracity of some of the allegations, “the real question is why the complainants had not produced a single confirmatory affidavit” from those who claimed their signatures had been forged.

Schoeman said it was still open to GroundUp to present further evidence, including supporting affidavits and expert reports, to the LPC for the investigation to be reopened — and there was no need to bring the court application. He asked that it be dismissed with costs.

Judgment is expected to be reserved. DM

Disclosure: Tania Broughton is a freelance journalist who also writes for GroundUp.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ann Bown says:

    It appears that the LPC is rather useless at its job! Fancy asking investigative journalist if they have qualifications in document examination. Really!

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    I am an attorney and am consistently appalled by the LPC’s reluctance to properly investigate malfeasance. Toothlees and reluctant. No wonder there are so many complaints against attorneys.

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