UPDATE: Socialite in three-ring circus

There’s a new twist in the tale of Cape Town socialite Sylvia Ireland, whose former psychiatrist, Dr Ray Berrard, is in the midst of a Health Professions Council disciplinary hearing for having had sex with her while she was his patient. This time it’s her lawyer who is in the dogbox – for behaving “like a pawn-broker” and taking her jewellery – three rings and five bracelets – in lieu of payment.

When Ireland was going through a divorce from the late South African perfume supremo Stuart Ireland, he and a sheriff arrived at her door one day with a so-called “Anton Pillar” court order to search for and seize the vicious family mongrel, Jack, and various household items.

Sylvia Ireland on the ropes

She urgently called on her attorney Charl Coetzee of the firm Louw Coetzee and Malan Inc, to come to her rescue. He’d been recommended to her by Inge Peacock, owner of Ireland’s favourite fashion boutique, Lulu Tan Tan. But, says Ireland, when he arrived he spent a great deal of his time that morning establishing how his fee was going to be paid. He left bearing various diamond rings and bracelets, today worth an estimated R1.2 million.

Now Ireland wants the jewellery she gave him as security returned, and instead wants to be properly – and fairly – billed. “He will not return my e-mails and my requests to return my jewellery in place of payment. I regard the work he has done to be less than commensurate with the value of the diamonds he took and I am therefore laying a charge of theft against him,” reads an affidavit lodged at the Claremont police station.

“Any lawyer will tell you that isn’t theft,” the Cape Law Society told her – but their disciplinary committee did find there to have been unprofessional conduct by Coetzee “in that he failed to account faithfully, accurately and timeously… for fees and disbursements and for payments received by him, either in money or jewellery or other items, so as to enable the complainant to assess the amount outstanding or any refund to which she may be entitled”.

Coetzee was also found to have brought the attorneys’ profession into disrepute “by retaining possession of eight items of jewellery entrusted to him by the complainant as security for fees, the value of which exceeded the fees as set out in an as-yet-untaxed bill of costs, despite requests for the return of such jewellery”.

Peter Pearson, legal officer of the law society’s disciplinary department, added that Coetzee had elected to call for a full disciplinary enquiry into the matter, “which has the effect of suspending the finding of council pending the outcome of the disciplinary enquiry proceedings”.

When Ireland first indicated she wanted an accounting and most of her diamonds back, Coetzee produced a series of invoices amounting to more than R730 000. However, when the law society asked him to submit a bill, he produced an account for less than half that amount – about R336 000.

Coetzee claims his “refusal to do anything for Mrs Ireland until I had been given some form of security was based on unpaid accounts… and the litany of litigation she was involved in based on unpaid accounts running into millions of rands”. He said that, with the urgent matter in question “the papers were voluminous… In the circumstances there was absolutely no way that I was prepared to assist her without adequate cover. Mrs Ireland voluntarily gave items of jewellery to me as security and in lieu of fees”.

Coetzee has refused to speak to Ireland’s new attorney, Jeanne Strauss of Ian Levitt Attorneys, who tried to establish what happened to the jewellery.

Strauss berated him in July 2010 saying: “You are an attorney, not a pawn shop owner… it is your duty to properly account to your client of your fees and client’s payments. As soon as your bill of costs is taxed it is our instruction to issue summons against you for the difference between the fees owed to you and our client’s jewellery and proceed against you at the law society for conduct unbecoming of an attorney,” wrote Strauss.

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