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Articles and legal news from the Atkinson Vinden Team.

The Sly and the Slippery

Disputes

Stories from our Litigation Team

Let’s face it, the practice of the law can be a bit dull. However, sometimes things can get a little interesting, as litigation lawyer and Managing Partner Rod Berry explains.

I have spent many days in court, some of which have been stultifyingly boring. I recall one particularly dull insurance matter, involving a claim by a lady who had slipped on a banana peel in a shopping centre, that was so tedious that the arbitrator at the District Court fell asleep. Counsel for the Plaintiff, who was seeking to make headway on what he may have hoped was a scintillating cross-examination, coughed loudly, and when that did not work, loudly pounded his brief on the bar table hoping to rouse the snoozing court official’s attention. It was all to no avail. The lady was not believed. Her account of where the peel was became hopelessly contradicted, and she lost her case.

As “banana lady” discovered, life, and the law, can be a slippery thing. More recently, the AV litigation team has seen a run of cases involving female victims, all involving apparent scams or fraud, and I thought it might interest our readers to hear about five of these fascinating disputes. For reasons of confidentiality and privacy, names and details which may identify the parties have been varied, but the essential facts of each case are accurate.

In one case, whilst our client was on extended leave, a fraudster cloaked her email account and purported to give instruction to her financial planner for hundreds of thousands of dollars to be “invested” at “her direction”. The funds ended up in the fraudster’s hands, and our client (and the financial planner) only realised what had happened when the financial planner raised the investment with the client on her return from holidays. Fortunately, we were able to recover the majority of our client’s losses.

A different type of scam resulted in another client losing almost $2 million. She was befriended online by someone whom she came to believe was in love with her. She even went to the airport to welcome this person on the expectation of marrying him in coming days. That love interest was in fact a well-organised fraud syndicate with links in several countries in Africa and Europe, which managed to convince our client to heavily mortgage her north shore property to invest in their alleged “oil business”. We were able to provide some assistance, through taking action against an Australian party who had given her some advice at the time that she took out the mortgage.

Occasionally the apparent scam is perpetrated more openly, as happened to a client who got married in a big family wedding, or at least she thought that she had. Despite going through the rigmarole of a large scale wedding ceremony and attending receptions with relatives in two states, her ‘husband’ never actually signed anything that was legally binding.  They attended the registry several times and each time he ‘forgot his ID’ or something similarly pathetic. After taking advantage of her financially, the fraudster declared one day that they weren’t actually married, and called the police to take her away. We learnt through this case that breach of promise of marriage was a tort in Victorian England but alas is not any more.

Families can cause incredible misery to each other. A recent case we dealt with involved identity theft on a social media platform. The essential facts were that due to rival jealousies following an acrimonious marriage breakdown, a relative of the victim managed to hack into her social media account, and then post things on her behalf that were dreadfully damaging to her, such as supposed “confessions” of crimes she had never in fact committed. We were able to get the co-operation of the platform host through stern correspondence, to shut down the unlawful hacking of our client’s account, and ultimately the perpetrator was identified by reference to an overseas IP address.

Our final sorry tale involved a semi-literate owner of a large commercial building in Sydney. She was convinced to sign an agency agreement that granted the agent a percentage commission rate up to a certain fixed level, and then a right to take all of the proceeds over that fixed level. The very next day, the agent produced a purchaser who was willing to pay more than a million dollars above the fixed level, meaning that the agent would be entitled to well over $1 million commission, for one day’s work. The matter was subsequently settled on terms we are not at liberty to disclose.

The common thread through these various cases is that all were female victims, in most instances taken advantage of for their trusting nature. It appears that personal fraud may be heavily gendered, which would be a very interesting subject for another article. In four of the five cases the law was able to offer some redress for the victim, and our litigation team was able to see some justice restored to the situation. In all cases, our staff shook their heads. Fact was stranger than fiction. Human nature never ceases to amaze.

Our impression is that the anonymity which modern technology increasingly affords will present an increasing threat to ordinary citizens. Extreme care should always be exercised, especially when dealing with large sums of money. Sound advice should always be sought before entering into any major transaction to ensure the bona fides of the other party. And when things go dreadfully wrong, as they did for the various victims referred to in this article, there is usually something which can be done – so please give us a call.