Father and son personal injury attorneys, Ronald and Darren Bobroff, face their toughest challenge ever. Matthew and Jennifer Graham, former clients who were allegedly overcharged by Ronald Bobroff and Partners (RBP), have brought an urgent application in the Pretoria High Court asking a full bench of judges to suspend the Bobroffs from practising law pending an investigation into the firm’s billing practices, as well as its business and trust accounts.
This application is unique as normally only a law society, the statutory body that governs the attorney profession, would apply for such an order. An application by ordinary citizens has never successfully been argued in our courts, but there seems to be legal precedent that has paved the way for it.
Illegal fee agreements
The Grahams have brought the application after a period of four years in which the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP) dragged its heels in dealing with their complaint that RBP overcharged them.
They complained to the LSNP after it became apparent that RBP overcharged them using its controversial common law contingency fee agreement (CLCFA) when the firm claimed on behalf of the Grahams from the Road Accident Fund (RAF).
In February 2014 the Constitutional Court in another matter declared that the Bobroffs’ CLCFA was illegal and did not comply with the Contingency Fees Act.
In April last year judge Billy Mothle, in the application brought by the Grahams against the LSNP to do an inspection, ordered that the LSNP immediately proceed to inspect RBP’s practice and accounts.
The Bobroffs appealed against this ruling and the case went to the Constitutional Court. In November the court refused to hear the appeal, as it deemed there were no prospects of success for the Bobroffs.
The LSNP then tried to conduct an inspection at the firm, but the Bobroffs curtailed access to the records that the investigation team were mandated to see.
It in response to the Graham’s original application that the LSNP has now applied for clarification of the ambit of Mohtle’s order and noted that the Bobroffs have been obstructive.
George van Niekerk
As part of the application, the Graham’s attorney George van Niekerk also filed an affidavit in which he asks for the urgent suspension of the Bobroffs, as well as for the appointment of a court-appointed curator to run the law firm and investigate the fees charged to all RBP’s historic clients. This is so that all clients who were overcharged could be refunded.
Areas of attack
Van Niekerk’s affidavit largely focuses on the conduct of the Bobroffs and of the LSNP.
He points out that the sheer volume of litigation against the Bobroffs, in which the LSNP was cited, should have been enough to cause the LSNP to make its own inquiry into the affairs of the Bobroffs and RBP.
Van Niekerk also said the Bobroffs relied heavily on the LSNP to defend them in their continued use of its contingency fee agreements.
Fourteen clients have sued the Bobroffs for an accounting and repayment and RBP has already refunded some R10 million to former clients.
A substantial part of Van Niekerk’s affidavit was devoted to what he called, “Defamatory attacks by the Bobroffs” on everyone who did not agree with their view of CLCFAs.
Bobroffs have, via RBP’s website and social media, attacked several parties, including this journalist, Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk (not related to George van Niekerk), Jeff Katz of Discovery and Anthony Millar from Norman Berger and Partners and RBP whistleblower Cora van der Merwe. These “defamatory attacks” continued after the Bobroffs last year gave an undertaking to the LSNP that they would not continue to do so.
Van Niekerk described this conduct in the court papers as, “an astounding affront to the LSNP’s authority.”
Van Niekerk also noted that the LSNP’s actions had been “insufficient” and that even though they had vast powers in terms of the Attorneys Act, they had adopted a supine position, and that this attitude did not accord with the LSNP’s statutory duties.
Van Niekerk: “The evidence, and flood of litigation by past clients, demonstrates that the Bobroffs operated in terms of a particular modus operandi. This means that there are other past clients who have been overcharged under the guise of CLCFAs. The ultimate effect of the raft of litigation against the Bobroffs is that they must account to their past clients.”
No comment was received from the Bobroffs, the LSNP or the RAF at the time of publication.
Read the LSNP’s application here.
Read the Grahams’ application below: