An attorney has been given until March 2 to repay a client over $100,000 or risk going to jail for 60 days.
The order was given by Justice Frank Seepersad who approved an application of Wendy Phillip who sought an order to have her previous attorney Kathy-Ann Mottley sent to prison for failing to pay the remainder of a judgment sum awarded to her.
Phillip’s application was made pursuant to provisions of the Debtors Act which gives the court the jurisdiction to jail a debtor.
Mottley was hired by Phillip to represent her in a lawsuit involving her son who died in an accident. A default judgment was entered in Phillip’s favour as administrator of her son, Kareem Richards’ estate and was awarded damages, inclusive of costs and interest.
After the case concluded, Phillip filed a complaint against Mottley with the disciplinary committee who found her guilty of professional misconduct by the disciplinary committee of the Law Association on May 4, 2017. Mottley was ordered to reimburse Phillip $113,000, as well as a fine of $10,000.
Mottley appealed the committee’s decision, but later withdrew it and consented to pay her former client. She was also ordered to pay an additional $4,000 in costs for withdrawing the appeal, and interest which was calculated at $7,298 for two years and seven months the money was owed.
On May 3, 2019, Mottley paid Phillip $10,000 by cheque and told her she was in the process of “selling a property” to get the full amount but it was taking longer than expected.
Mottley said she would continue to make payments until the sum was paid in full, but she never did.
Phillip’s new attorney Brent Winter, after a series of correspondence sent to Mottley and her attorneys, filed the application to have her pay up the remaining debt by November 4, 2019.
Phillip, a retiree, said Mottley has shown no interest in paying the money and she needed the money to meet various expenses.
In delivering an oral decision at the Hall of Justice, Port of Spain, on Monday, Seepersad ordered Mottley to repay $103,000, the $4,000 in costs incurred at the appeal, interest at the statutory rate as well as an additional $7,500 in costs for Monday’s application, by 4 pm on March 2. If she fails to pay it by then, Mottley will be arrested and jailed for 60 days.
The judge said it was unacceptable that Phillip had to wait four years and was still left without the benefit of receiving her judgment award.
Seepersad said Mottley was not a layman and would have known of the consequences of her failure to pay the judgement debt, especially since she was served with the proceedings.
She was not in court when the decision was given, although attempts had been made to contact her by phone.
Seepersad said the court had a duty to uphold the reputation of civil justice and the rule of law, adding that lawyers play a fundamental role in defending the rights of citizens.
He said the highest level of professional conduct was needed and a strong message must be sent to those in the profession who breach their duties that they will be made to account for their actions and face the consequences.
He noted that while the issue of contingency fees - a fee arrangement between litigants and lawyers for a percentage of a settlement if the case is won - was not part of the local legal landscape to protect citizens from unscrupulous lawyers, particularly in running-down and personal injury cases.
Seepersad repeated an earlier call he made for a more regulated system, while also ensuring that citizens are made aware that they can challenge the unscrupulous conduct of attorneys so that a majority of people do not “suffer in silence.”
“The situation must end,” he said, urging for a more regulated framework to include the issue of contingency fees and for continuous training for attorneys, particularly in ethics, when renewing their practising certificates.