Courting disaster

Pietermaritzburg advocates to mark the seventh anniversary of a notorious brawl at the Bar with another round in court. 

It takes a bunch of drunken senior lawyers to demonstrate beyond doubt that legal action is by far the most costly, time-consuming, inefficient and ultimately ineffective way to settle a dispute or bring an alleged wrongdoer to account.

The case brought by fellow advocates at the Pietermaritzburg Bar against Advocate Penny Hunt to have her struck off the advocate’s roll is expected to resume in April, nearly seven years after colleagues first accused her of habitually using foul language in chambers, of bugging their offices, tracking a colleague’s motor vehicle and, double-booking fee hours.

In the course of the venomous, seven-year battle, the robes of decorum have been flung aside, and the veneer of aloof respectability that surrounds the legal worthies of the Bar has been shattered.

Revealed for all to see is that advocates suffer from the same character flaws and weaknesses generally attributed to their blue-collar clients: they may indulge in alcohol-fuelled binges and punch-ups, extramarital affairs, dirty in-house jokes, foul language and – not that unexpectedly – they have a great propensity for vindictiveness. 

'Foul-mouthed' Advocate Penny Hunt is fighting for her professional life

All this and more is to be found in several files filled with affidavits, emails, letters, minutes, agendas and transcripts that form part of the court record at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg. 

There are no holds barred as Hunt continues the fight for her professional life. The trial, which began last year, is set down to continue from 3 -13 April.

“Foul-mouthed” Hunt’s story goes back still further, but hit the headlines for the first time in June 2010, when her husband, Cameron Hunt SC, then leader of Group 1 in the Pietermaritzburg Bar (Hunt was also a member), beat up “inebriated” fellow advocate Mergen Chetty at a Bar function to celebrate the start of the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.

It was a pretty cheesy knockabout:  Penny Hunt spilled her drink on Chetty’s head. Chetty, not only drunk but now angry, reacted yelling a tirade of “Fuck you” and “don’t fucking do that to me again” while pointing his finger in her face.

There are two versions of what happened next. The first: Penny Hunt tried to hug Chetty but Chetty rejected her by pushing her away. The second: Chetty looked Cameron Hunt in the eye and said, “Fuck her and fuck you too”. 

Whichever it was, in the presence of sitting judges and KZN Midlands-based advocates, Cameron Hunt (a one-time amateur boxer) within seconds had floored Chetty with two quick punches to the face, knocking him out cold for five minutes. Chetty had bruising to the back of his head, a bruised and bleeding mouth and loose teeth (but, apparently, “nothing a dentist couldn’t fix or that wouldn’t heal”).

“At the time alcohol fell on to Chetty’s head Chetty was already drunk,” was the finding of JE Hewitt SC, who chaired Cameron Hunt’s disciplinary hearing in November 2013.

“This instinctive reaction of punching Chetty was attributed by [Cameron] Hunt SC to certain boxing skills which he had acquired in the past when he participated in the sport of boxing at an amateur level,” it said.

Advocate Mergen Chetty was knocked out stone cold in a Bar punch-up

Cameron Hunt was reprimanded by the society, which accepted the sentence he received in the criminal trial that arose from the incident as sufficient punishment. He had pleaded guilty to common assault and had been ordered to apologise and pay R67,000 to Chetty as recompense.

But this result was yet to come.  In the months immediately following the Bar brawl – and with Chetty seeking legal retribution as only an advocate would – Penny Hunt allegedly hired professional security contractor Houston Impey, to place a Tracker on Chetty’s car to help them “get dirt on him”. She also asked Impey to make a copy of the society’s CCTV hard-drive.

Penny Hunt thought of the CCTV as an option to thwart Chetty’s case when in September 2010 an office prankster had placed condoms on the windscreen wipers of her and her husband’s vehicles. She had initially thought of using the CCTV as a means of identifying the prankster, but the joker came forward of his own accord before it could be done.

“It subsequently occurred to me that for the purpose of demonstrating how drunk Chetty was on 11 June 2010, it would be a good idea to access the system. The motive was twofold. On one hand I would be able to demonstrate how drunk Chetty was, and on the other hand, my husband and I would be able to demonstrate the degree of injury he actually suffered.”

But Penny Hunt said there had been difficulties in obtaining the footage and that the CCTV system was faulty. For this reason she had called on Impey to help her make a copy of the footage. “As I considered it of importance to demonstrate [his] extreme state of inebriation and the drinking habits of Chetty for purposes of the defence of my husband, I determined that it would be useful to view the CCTV footage of Chetty leaving… after a Bar function on 29 October 2010.

“According to information we received, Chetty had become quite seriously inebriated on that evening, and had driven recklessly when he emerged from the garage,” said Penny Hunt. 

On 30 October 2010, a Saturday, Impey gained access to the Bar’s security system after he provided the building’s security staff with a fake identity.  He took out the hard drive and replaced it with another inferior model and left in his car – which bore false registration plates. His departure was recorded on the inferior hard drive.

A few days later the Bar’s then-deputy chairman Gerhard Roberts SC heard about the hard-drive removal and cries of “theft” were uttered.  The image of the “thief” was printed in the Pietermaritzburg daily newspaper The Witness on 4 November 2010, but no one came forward to identify him.

“I find it strange that [Hunt], well knowing that the person in the photograph must have been Impey, did not come forward,” noted Roberts in his affidavit for Penny Hunt’s strike out.

This act of “disloyalty” by Roberts triggered yet another feud, with Penny Hunt retaliating by claiming that Roberts had persuaded her to write a scathing rebuke of Bar administrator Esme van der Watt, which Roberts had then circulated. He had subsequently failed to support her when the matter was raised in the Bar council.

Van der Watt refused to enter the Group 1 offices for fear of being “met by a torrent of expletives”. On one occasion when she had dropped off a parcel at Penny Hunt’s office, Penny Hunt had snapped: “I wish people would not fucking barge into my chambers without knocking.” Penny was forced to formally apologise.

But why Penny would have had Van der Watt’s offices bugged – another charge she faces – is still a mystery.

The bug was found in March 2011 after Penny Hunt’s former secretary Allyson Bradbury reported that she had found clandestine audio clips of Van der Watt on Penny Hunt’s computer.  This incident eventually led to Penny Hunt’s office being raided by the police.

According to Penny Hunt, Adrian Rall SC, then chairman of the Pietermaritzburg Bar, was “biased” against her and Cameron Hunt. This was why she was facing a strike-off application. 

Rall’s dislike of the Hunts was no secret. According to Penny, her husband and Rall’s relationship had been “far from cordial” since their early days at the Bar.

 Adrian Hall SC is accused of being petty

Rall had forced Penny Hunt to formally apologise to Van der Watt for swearing at her and Rall had also doggedly pushed for both Penny and Cameron Hunt to be removed from the Pietermaritzburg Bar.

Rall said in his affidavit that charges against Penny Hunt “demonstrate serious and ongoing unprofessional conduct” that is “repetitive, unprofessional, criminal and devious”.

“Someone so ethically handicapped cannot be allowed to practise as an advocate,” said Rall.

According to Penny Hunt, the Hunts’ relationship with Rall was so bad that he cancelled the Pietermaritzburg Bar’s 2010 Christmas Party because the Hunts had indicated they would attend.

Van der Watt, who has since resigned, stated under oath that Rall had once admitted to her that “he wanted both Hunts disbarred” and that he accused Penny of being responsible for his “non-appointment to the Bench via her association with an attorney who was a member of the Black Lawyers Association”.  

“It is clear to me... that Mr Rall hates both these advocates, and, in particular, P Hunt,” said Van der Watt.

She even recanted a previous affidavit prepared for her by Rall for the strike-out application, claiming that “on closer inspection it was factually incorrect”. She said she did this as it was clear Rall had a vendetta against the Hunts. 

Nevertheless Impey was eventually found and arrested for his “theft” of the hard drive. It was while being interrogated that he admitted to placing a tracker on Chetty’s Honda Civic.

On the strength of Impey’s confessions, local police officer Colonel Hennie Laatz went to see Chetty and asked to inspect his car. After feeling underneath the chassis he exclaimed “Hy’s hier!”. He had found the tracking device.

“I can only assume that [Penny Hunt] wanted to gain information about my whereabouts and, should she have found something untoward, she would have used that information against me as leverage so that I would withdraw the criminal charges of assault …against her husband,” said Chetty.

Impey would also later confess to his involvement in the bugging of Van der Watt’s office. He admitted to taking the hard-drive but not with the intent to steal; he said he wanted to make a copy and return it to allow Penny Hunt to watch the recordings “at her leisure”.

In the statement he made as a “Section 204 Witness” (a co-accused who has agreed to testify for the Prosecution), Impey said he “was paid by Advocate P Hunt for the services that I rendered, namely the installing of the listening device, the tracking device on the vehicle of Adv M Chetty and other services”.

In September 2010, at a Special General Meeting of the Pietermaritzburg Bar, five of six motions specifically targeted the Hunts by name. These motions called for the rejection of a letter by Penny Hunt making allegations against Van der Watt (the same letter Penny Hunt said Roberts had coerced her to write); the second, to expedite the disciplinary processes against both Hunts; that Penny Hunt be barred from talking to Van der Watt; that the Hunts be requested to resign; and that an interdict be sought against the couple preventing them from “assaulting, threatening to assault, swearing at, intimidating or harassing” fellow staff or anyone who so happened to be on the premises of the Advocates’ Chambers in Pietermaritzburg.

In 2011 the Hunts left the Pietermaritzburg Bar and joined the Durban Bar.

Penny Hunt has maintained her innocence throughout this period, only admitting to double-booking, which she claims was no fault of her own but rather an administrative bungle as well as the result of her doing pro bono work. She was internally disciplined and received an official reprimand.  She claims that the two key witnesses in the society’s case against her are tainted. She admitted to hiring Impey, but claims his Section 204 statement is untrue and that her former secretary Allyson Bradbury is a liar and thief.

Penny Hunt admits to having wanted to copy the hard drive but said Impey removed it from the premises of his own volition and would have returned it.

In February 2016, the society agreed with Penny Hunt. Reported in The Witness, Jean Marais SC of the KZN society was quoted as saying that the allegation was now “unauthorised access to the CCTV hard drive, no longer theft” and that they would drop this charge in the strike-off application.

Furthermore the National Prosecuting Authority in December 2014 declined to prosecute Penny Hunt on any of the charges she is facing in the strike-out application.

Penny Hunt flatly denies any involvement in having the listening device placed in Van der Watt’s office. Instead she said she had had her own office swept for listening devices in the latter part of 2010 and found “a device” in the ceiling but never reported it to the police or the Bar. She said she handed the device to her attorney for safe-keeping.

As for Bradbury, Penny Hunt said her former secretary was a “liar” and couldn’t be trusted. She said Bradbury  made dozens of international phone-calls to “exotic places” with calls to 54 different countries, had stolen a jet massage treatment from them, had unauthorised access to their emails, bought flowers on her account, made personal car-repair payments at her expense and may have stolen her son’s iPad. 

Penny Hunt said Rall’s persistence against her had eventually led to her forfeiting an appointment to be a Small Claims Commissioner, claiming Rall had interfered and wanted all the appointments scrutinised over concerns of foul play. “Over time, Rall revealed a considerable determination to do my husband and me harm whenever the opportunity arose”.

She also said that, while there was much enthusiasm to attack her husband for hitting Chetty and to force her to apologise for foul language, Rall was less reluctant to pursue others in a similar vein.

Once, said Penny Hunt, Advocate Sonja Franke had said “fokken” to Van der Watt, without rebuke. In another incident, Advocate Ruaan van Rooyen had shouted in the common room that he wished he could “slap one of these bitches in the Bar through the face”.

“The following weekend [Van Rooyen] assaulted Sonja Franke, with whom he was at that time conducting an extra-marital affair.” Penny Hunt said the assault took place at a townhouse owned by a prominent lawyer. Penny Hunt said Rall, who had been quick to discipline her husband, appeared reluctant to deal with this assault and had only done so under pressure from the female Bar members who took up the matter. Van Rooyen would later resign from the Bar.

The pettiness between Rall and Cameron Hunt was finally revealed in TeaGate in August 2011. Cameron Hunt’s secretary, John Blomkamp, was reprimanded by Rall for asking the tea lady to make tea during her lunch break and at random times during the day.

Cameron Hunt, bristling, emailed Rall with regards to “entitlement to Gugu’s tea/coffee making services”, saying Rall had no right to talk to his staff and that Rall should in future “resist the temptation to overstep your boundaries”.

Five days later, Rall replied on the society’s official letterhead, calling Cameron Hunt’s  complaint “devoid of all merit” and reminding him that every person is only allowed two cups a day to be made by the tea lady. 

Then Rall took the opportunity to unburden himself of a number of other grievances against Group 1: they failed to submit accounts on time or at all; Bar administrator Van der Watt was tired of being their “nursemaid”; she also didn’t like going into their reception area because she was “likely to be met by a torrent of expletives from your foul-mouthed wife”.

Cameron Hunt, now also writing on his official letterhead, called Rall’s comments “sedulously insulting” and accused Rall of creating the tea lady’s complaint. He said he would take up the complaint made against his wife.

Cameron Hunt’s closing swipe: “In your future communications and dealings with this Group, please do try to control both your self-importance and your spleen.”

It should come as no surprise to readers that Advocate Cameron Hunt is frequently to be seen in court representing the Receiver of Revenue.

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