Court orders lawyers to pay damages to the client they failed to help

Eastern Cape High Court tells law firm to pay man who lost his eyesight after being shot by police

By Tania Broughton

14 September 2021

Illustration: Lisa Nelson

The Eastern Cape High Court has ordered a Gqeberha law firm to pay damages to a former client for injuries he sustained after being shot in the face by a police officer.

Tarquin Julies, who was 25 years old at the time, lost one eye and is blind in the other as a result of being shot in December 2008. Julies first approached another law firm, Masimla Attorneys, to sue the Minister of Police but the firm did not lodge his claim within the legally prescribed time of three years.

Julies then approached Peter McKenzie Attorneys to sue Masimla. But Peter McKenzie Attorneys also dropped the ball, and allowed that claim to prescribe. “To the plaintiff [Julies], the problem with the law has been the lawyers,” said Judge Jannie Eksteen, in his ruling on 7 September.

Judge Eksteen described Julies as an “unsophisticated man” who had left school in grade 7 because of financial constraints. He lived with his mother and was working as a handyman.

On that day of the shooting, Julies and his friends had been drinking at his house when police arrived. One of his friends threw a beer bottle at police which struck their vehicle. An officer got out carrying a shotgun and without uttering a word, shot Julies in the face.

Charges of public violence, assault and malicious injury to property were laid against three of his friends but were ultimately withdrawn.

In early 2009, Julies instructed Masimla Attorneys to sue the minister. He was told that it was a “big case” and would take a long time. Julies said he spoke to Masimla several times and was always assured that he was busy with the case, and would instruct an advocate to assist him.

Julies, in his evidence to the court, said that he had to undergo several operations at government hospitals. In October 2015, he had a procedure at a private clinic and, concerned about the bill, he asked Masimla for progress on his case. Masimla told him he had “no file”.

A few months later, Julies confirmed that no claim had been lodged with the police’s civil litigation department.

In August 2016, he instructed Peter McKenzie Attorneys to sue Masimla. But by December 2019 he lost faith in the firm and approached his current attorney Vic Skelton to assist him.

During the trial, Peter McKenzie said that he had a copy of the contingency agreement Julies had signed, but that it had been misfiled. He said the rest of the documents in the file had been “blown away” by a gust of wind when he moved offices at the end of August 2017.

Judge Eksteen said McKenzie acknowledged that he had not attended to the file after that.

Turning to the shooting incident, Eksteen said the uncontested evidence demonstrated a strong possibility that Julies’ case against the minister would have succeeded.

He ruled that Masimla was negligent in allowing the claim against the minister to prescribe, and ruled that Julies’ claim against him had timed out through the fault of Mckenzie.

“On his own admission, he was negligent in his conduct of the matter. In two and half years, he never obtained a power of attorney from Mr Julies, he did not obtain a copy of the docket, nor any medical reports,” Judge Eksteen said. He ordered that McKenzie pay Julies’ proven damages as a result of the 2008 shooting and legal costs.