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Lawyer accused of fleecing client of nearly R4m, and 8 more ‘hapless victims’, is disbarred

Western Cape attorney also accused of selling property for twice the original amount

A Western Cape lawyer has been struck off the roll.
A Western Cape lawyer has been struck off the roll.
Image: 123RF/ rclassenlayouts

Young married couples and pensioners who trusted a Western Cape lawyer to handle their property deals ended up out of pocket.

Hanno Steffen has been struck off the roll of legal practitioners at the request of the Legal Practice Council to the Western Cape high court.

“He [is alleged to have] preyed on unsuspecting members of the public and has shown no remorse or contrition for what he has done. He has made no offer to recompense any of his victims. To protect the public, the respondent must be removed from the roll of legal practitioners. Hopefully he will still be prosecuted for the criminal offences he has committed,” judge Mark Sher, with judge Patrick Gamble concurring, said in a ruling on Tuesday.

The attorney practised as a director of the incorporated firm H Steffen Inc from premises in Brackenfell and Stellenbosch.

In March 2022, Steffen was suspended from practice pending an investigation into several complaints against him. His business was placed under curatorship.

He was later charged with misappropriation of trust funds from the Fijnbosch Farm Trust the year before, involving R3.9m. He waived his right to a hearing before a disciplinary committee and pleaded guilty to the charge.

“From the papers before us, it appears between October 2020 and the end of April 2022 the respondent [allegedly] misappropriated a further R3.3m from eight other hapless victims,” the court said this week.

“Two of these occurred after he had already been suspended, one within a matter of days after the order was granted and the other a month later.”

The alleged misappropriations involved money paid into Steffen’s trust account either as the proceeds of the sales of immovable properties, in transactions in which he had been appointed as the conveyancer, or in respect of transfer fees and duties which had been paid to him.

From the complaints received his “choice of victims was indiscriminate and ranged from young married couples to retired pensioners.”

The judgment was scathing of his alleged actions.

“His misconduct was not confined to simple acts of opportunistic filching. Where there was an opportunity to exploit a transaction further, he did not hesitate to do so,” the judges said.

His first act of misappropriation was in respect of the proceeds of the sale of an immovable property to the Prosper Trust, which, unknown to the sellers, was an entity of which the respondent was a trustee and beneficiary, together with the estate agent who marketed the property.

“Without paying the purchase price of R300,000 to the sellers the respondent and his colleague sold the property five days later for twice the value it had been bought for, R600,000 which they pocketed.

“In similar vein, when the respondent misappropriated the R4m proceeds of the sale of farmland which belonged to the Fijnbosch Farm Trust, he pocketed R521,731 of VAT that was supposed to be paid to the South African Revenue Service.”

The court said Steffen has not offered any explanation.

“On the papers before us the inference which one is driven to is that these were predatory acts motivated solely by greed and self-enrichment. Even when he was suspended the respondent was not dissuaded from continuing to fleece those who had entrusted him with their monies.

“As members of a distinguished and venerable profession, lawyers occupy an important place in society and absolute personal integrity and scrupulous honesty are required of them. These fundamental attributes are the bedrock for the trust which members of the public repose in lawyers. The respondent callously betrayed that trust, and his behaviour is indicative of a complete and utter absence of integrity and honesty.”

TimesLIVE


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