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OJ guilty of grave professional misconduct

HeadlineOJ guilty of grave professional misconduct

Photo: Attorney Orson “OJ” Elrington

GLC finds favour with complainant against attorney Orson “OJ” Elrington, who could also face police prosecution for an ancillary matter.

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 25, 2024

The General Legal Council (GLC), the entity which is mandated to uphold standards of professional conduct in the judiciary, has found attorney Orson “OJ” Elrington guilty of grave professional misconduct. The 6-member GLC, chaired by Justice Rajiv Goonetilleke, handed down its 12-page decision on April 19, 2024, after considering a complaint made by Pastor Dozie Ifeanyichineke last year. The hearing was held on February 19, 2024, with Pastor Dozie representing himself, while Elrington was accompanied by his father, Senior Counsel Hubert Elrington.

Elrington has been summoned to a hearing on May 24 to present reasons why sanctions as outlined in the Legal Profession Act should not be imposed on him. Those include the removal of his name from the Roll of attorneys in Belize; his removal from practice on conditions determined by the Council; a fine; a reprimand; or a restitution payment.

Pastor Dozie sought legal representation from Elrington to bring a constitutional claim against the Social Security Board (SSB) based on discrimination after his application for survivor’s pension was denied following the death of his wife in December 2021. Pastor Dozie’s position is that men should also be able to claim widower’s pension upon the death of their spouse. In the constitutional claim, he sought damages as well as to recover the widower’s pension.

A claim was filed on May 4, 2023, and the counsels for both parties proceeded to discuss an out-of-court settlement as proposed by Elrington. Elrington proposed that SSB pay Pastor Dozie $60,000 as a survivor’s grant and vindicatory damages, as well as $22,000 in costs. SSB’s counter offer totalled $45,000, which Elrington, via his paralegal, advised Pastor Dozie not to accept. The matter therefore went to court. After Pastor Dozie missed a case management session, negotiations for a settlement got underway in his absence. However, he was apprised that discussions were ongoing.

On October 17, 2023, Pastor Dozie was following up on the next court session when he was forwarded, by the paralegal, a draft word document of the consent order for $46,588. However, he never agreed to accept that figure. He subsequently visited the High Court to make checks on the case himself, and that is when he learned that Elrington had already entered into the consent order with the SSB. The GLC therefore found that Elrington breached Rule 22 of the Legal Profession (Code of Conduct) Rules “to act in the best interest of his client and to represent him honestly, competently and zealously, and to endeavour by all fair and honourable means to obtain, for him, the benefit of any and every remedy.” Elrington was also required, based on standard practice, to get his client’s consent in writing. As such, the GLC considered he was negligent. Also, the fact that he relied on his paralegal to explain legal issues to a client was considered to be a dereliction of professional duty as an attorney. In total, Elrington was found to have broken three Code of Conduct rules.

In December 2023, Pastor Dozie demanded that Elrington forward to him all the moneys that the SSB had transferred to his law firm, plus the amount he had paid as his retainer. No moneys were ever forwarded to him, and Elrington claimed it was because he was not provided with a bank account number. Pastor Dozie did confirm that he did not share his banking details with Elrington. The decision does not make reference to whether Elrington made any other attempt to get the moneys to him by another means.

The terms of the engagement of Elrington’s services were also a point of contention in the case before the GLC. That’s because Pastor Dozie affirmed that he only signed one such letter, while Elrington claimed he signed two. However, the only original copy provided to the GLC was of the first letter that Pastor Dozie said he signed. Elrington, though, who was asked twice to present originals of the letters to which he referred, could only provide scanned copies. The second letter features considerably higher contingency fees to cover Elrington’s services. Dozie agreed in the first letter to pay to Elrington 15% of the sums he would have collected, while the second letter stated 40%. The GLC suspects that it was fabricated, hence the reason why it intends to forward the documents to the police for forensic analysis. The ruling states, “Depending on the investigation of the Police Department, this Council may revisit this issue to make further findings of possible misconduct before this Council.”

Notably, during the hearing, the Council also found OJ Elrington “to be unnecessarily belligerent and insulting towards Pastor Dozie” during cross-examination.

Of national importance is that Pastor Dozie’s claim led last month to Cabinet approving amendments to regulations 32 and 54 of the Social Security (Benefit) Regulations so that survivor’s benefits can apply to both men and women.

In a statement on the GLC decision, Hubert Elrington stated, “It is important to clarify that the complaint pertains solely to the consent issue and not to any unwillingness to hand over funds …” He added, “Mr. Elrington maintains that while his office inadvertently failed to secure his consent in writing, Mr. Dozie, over a telephone conversation, verbally agreed to the terms. The GLC agreed with Dozie that proper consent was not obtained. While we may not fully agree with this decision, as officers of the court, we respect the authority of the General Legal Council.” Here, Amandala notes that the Council reviewed WhatsApp exchanges and oral testimony, and found Pastor Dozie to be credible in his affirmation that he never consented to the final settlement figure.

Elrington says they intend to present their reasons as to why no sanctions are warranted in the case.

We note also that the press statement on the ruling does not address the very serious concern about the authenticity of the second engagement letter.

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