‘MR X’ wants to become an advocate. But he has a secret: some years ago he abducted his young daughter and they spent five years wondering around Europe on false documents with both Interpol and the South African police looking for them.
Happily for all concerned the situation now appears to have been resolved and the child is back with her mother.
However, if you want to be admitted as an advocate you must fill in forms and answer questions about your past. And there’s a committee interview with further inquiries about your life. Faced with these questions Mr X played smoke and mirrors with the truth, saying nothing about the international child abduction in which he had been involved.
Then he was found out.
The courts generally take a dim view of people who try to diddle them and Mr X – we’ve given him this name to protect the identity of his daughter – has now been struck off the role of advocates.
Many hundreds, possibly thousands, of children are abducted by a parent every year and there’s now an international treaty dealing with the problems it causes. As Mr X will know from his legal studies, the Hague Convention on international child abduction took effect in South Africa during October 1997 – exactly a year after he disappeared with his daughter.
In September 2012, when the Cape Bar Council was tipped off about the facts Mr X preferred to suppress, he was already a pupil at the bar and enrolled as an advocate.
The bar council asked for his response. This was followed by a disciplinary inquiry and then an application to the high court for his removal from the roll of advocates.
The story he hadn’t disclosed was that in April 1996 the high court granted an order giving his now ex-wife sole custody of the child pending the finalisation of the divorce. In terms of that order he was not allowed to take the child out of South Africa.
Deliberately contravening the order he removed his daughter from South Africa in October 1996 – this followed several ‘dry runs’ to establish the safety of his planned escape route. In 2001, after five years in Europe, they were detailed by the Italian authorities who found he had false passports for himself, his daughter and another child.
Next came a fight in the South African courts: custody was given to the mother and criminal charges pending against him were withdrawn.
If he’d said this when he applied for admission he would have had a lot of explaining to do, but the outcome might have been different. Instead, the bar council complained that he had deliberately given ‘false information’ on his application form. Then, when he met the bar committee interviewing would-be members he ‘deliberately misled’ them. And thirdly, when he applied for admission as an advocate of the high court he ‘failed to disclose pertinent and relevant facts’ to the court.
His response was that he ‘merely made clerical errors’ in his answers. He denied deliberately withholding information saying he acted on advice from his wife, who is an attorney, and from other colleagues, before completing the questionnaire. He also kept quiet as the events of 1996 – 2001 were ‘a long time ago’.
He had ‘no intention’ of misleading the committee or the court and he ‘merely answered certain questions ‘’in a garbled fashion’’.’
The court found it was ‘inconceivable’ that he made these mistakes ‘inadvertently’. His excuse that there was no call for, or space provided for, explanations on the form was ‘far-fetched’: he clearly made a conscious decision not to reveal what had happened.
He was about 47 years old and had ‘significant real world experience’ by the time he completed his application: he’d worked as a prosecutor for a year, had been a legal advisor at various institutions locally and abroad and had completed his LLM. The only reasonable conclusion was that he had ‘deliberately and consciously’ falsified the information he provided because ‘he knew a real likelihood existed that he would not be accepted … if the true facts were revealed.’
The court concluded that a ‘very high degree of integrity and honesty’ was demanded from would-be advocates. His conduct fell ‘desperately short’ of what was required: his attempts at justifying his actions were ‘of utmost concern’ and his integrity was ‘seriously compromised’.
Leaving aside the court’s views, however, perhaps his biggest problem was that he wasn’t applying to join South Africa’s politicians or civil servants: with probity a rare quality in their ranks, no-one would have cared what lies he told.