Fugitive Durban lawyer gets 6-year sentence for defrauding friends

2017-03-22 17:16
High court. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

High court. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Durban - Disbarred Durban attorney Ian Stokes - convicted of stealing more than R5.7m of his friends' money from a trust account - was sentenced to in effect six years in jail by the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban on Wednesday.

He was expected to begin serving his sentence in the afternoon after he failed to get leave to appeal his conviction and was also refused bail pending petition to the Chief Justice.

"Justice has been done," said Durban businessman Robbie Sevel, a former friend of Stokes who gave him R2m to invest in a business to "buy" Road Accident Fund claims.

"He never, ever apologised. I would have liked to have seen him get the 15-year sentence prescribed by legislation," he said outside court.

Another of his victims, Stokes' former best friend and best man at his wedding, Garth O'Connor, was also in court, but left after the sentence was handed down.

Stokes, now 51, fled South Africa in 2000, abandoning his La Lucia Ridge law practice and his heavily pregnant wife, and leaving a trail of debt. He was tracked to the US and was extradited back to South Africa in 2004.

'Never intended to steal'

His trial only got underway in August 2014 after he sought, and failed, to get a permanent stay of prosecution from the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Arguing for a non-custodial sentence, Stokes said he was the primary caregiver for his wife, who has mental health issues and is institutionalised, and his teenage daughter, who has learning difficulties.

He also suffers from epilepsy.

Judge Esther Steyn said while she had to consider this, she had to consider deterrence and the public interest.

She noted that a clinical psychologist called by the State had described Stokes "as accepting responsibility for losing money... but he never intended to steal… it was his poor management that resulted in this loss".

"The psychologist says he views himself as being unfairly victimised as result of a perceived relentless pursuit of this case by his former friends and colleagues."

Steyn said Stokes considered himself innocent. To make matters worse, he had brought the legal profession into disrepute.

"Evidence was placed before me by the Attorneys Fidelity Fund that, in the 2015 financial year, claims [because of dishonest attorneys] had reached R120m."

No offer for compensation

While there were substantial and compelling circumstances to deviate from the prescribed 15-year sentence for a first offender, in these circumstances a non-custodial sentence would overemphasise his personal circumstances.

He was not remorseful and had failed to compensate any of the complainants, even though he earned between R80 000 and R100 000 a month.

"It has been the theme throughout the sentencing phase, that the accused is not a criminal in the true sense of the word. This notion is misplaced. Every person convicted of a crime is a criminal."

Steyn said she would not ignore the rights of his daughter and wife. She handed down a sentence of 12 years - six years suspended for five years - and ordered the Department of Social Development to immediately appoint social workers to investigate their needs.

Stokes was expected to begin serving his sentence later on Wednesday, after he failed to get leave to appeal against his conviction. He was refused bail pending a petition to the chief justice.

*The judge ordered that the names of Stokes' wife and daughter be withheld.

Read more on:    durban  |  crime

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