Lawyer axed for bills that 'ruined lives'

EION CASTLES: Gross overcharging.
EION CASTLES: Gross overcharging.

A lawyer who over-charged clients by almost $500,000, causing them to lose their house to pay the bill, has been struck off.

Auckland lawyer Eion Castles was last year found guilty of negligence, incompetence, misconduct and gross over-charging by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal.

The tribunal held a penalty hearing today but Castles, who declared bankruptcy on Friday, did not attend.

After submissions from Law Society lawyer John Katz, QC, the tribunal panel took 30 minutes to conclude that Castles should be struck off.

Katz said Castles had shown "no contrition, no regret, no remorse" and had responded to the tribunal's guilty verdict with a "sustained attack" on his former clients.

He filed no submissions and was not represented in the tribunal today, Katz said.

The tribunal has heard Castles charged the complainants more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008 for acting for them in three cases.

Expert assessors told the tribunal the work undertaken should not have cost more than $462,000.

The "grossly excessive overcharging" left the couple "virtually destitute", the tribunal said.

They were forced to sell their Remuera house to pay the bill and spent 28 months in 27 different house-sits.

The couple, whose names are suppressed, lived out of suitcases and supermarket shopping bags with no certainty of future accommodation and paid $600 a month in storage costs for their possessions.

Katz said the husband now had cancer and when he died he would leave his wife and two children with "minimal assets" due to Castle's actions.

"This practitioner single-handedly ruined these people's lives," Katz said.

Castles was a "serial overcharger" who had faced 18 complaints over 25 years - nine of which were upheld, he said. Striking off was the only possible outcome, he said.

Katz asked for repayment of the overcharged fees, and compensation for both the victims and the Law Society.

Castles declared bankruptcy on Friday and Katz said the "harsh reality" was that the couple would probably not see a cent of the money.

The couple addressed the tribunal today with the husband labelling Castles' bankruptcy "cowardly".

"With a complicit wife, Castles will still live in an up-market suburb, in a house owned by his wife," they said.

"He will still receive rent from a house owned by his wife. He will still holiday on the beach at Waiheke in a house owned by his wife. He will still play golf as he did Saturday and be a member of the Titirangi Golf Club.

"The man is a sociopath - without any sense of guilt, remorse or sympathy ... Castles has no conscience. He suffers no guilt nor will he endure any hardship while we continue to live in penury."

The case stemmed from High Court proceedings involving a leaky home the couple had bought.

After errors by the couple's previous lawyers, Castles, who was a golf buddy of the husband, offered to take on their case, the tribunal was told.

The couple said Castles did not tell them his hourly rate - between $350 and $390 - at their first meeting.

The tribunal said Castles' fees were "outrageous" considering the work carried out did not appear to be of a sufficient complexity or "unusual nature" to warrant retaining independent counsel of Castles' seniority.

Expert witnesses said the proceedings were "pointless and hugely expensive".

Castles did not tell the complainants that continuing with the proceedings would be uneconomic for them, the tribunal said.

While the complainants did receive $655,000 in settlement from one of the proceedings it did not cover their costs, the tribunal said.

Castles also disclosed confidential information about the couple's financial and mental states to the wife's brother-in-law.