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Lawyer Eugene Johnston is facing a fresh charge of improper conduct for allegedly refusing to return a file to a former client.

Developer Michael MacLean has made a formal complaint against Mr Johnston to the Bermuda Bar Council, claiming the attorney has withheld the file for some two years, despite a “plethora of requests” for its return.

The grievance follows a similar complaint made against Mr Johnston by the Corporation of Hamilton, after the high-profile collapse of the Par-la-Ville hotel project.

Mr Johnston was admonished by the Bar Council's disciplinary tribunal in that case.

The Bar Council's professional conduct committee has investigated the latest complaint and decided to again lay charges against Mr Johnston, according to paperwork seen by The Royal Gazette.

A tribunal to hear the matter was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to take place.

Mr MacLean, the chairman and director of Allied Development Partners Limited, said in his complaint that Mr Johnston represented ADPL in its dispute with the Government over the “voiding of agreements for the Hamilton Waterfront” when the lawyer ran his own J2 Chambers.

Mr MacLean, a trustee of the Allied Trust, which owns ADPL, wrote: “We have made several requests, over the course of nearly two years, directly to Mr Johnston, to return our client file in full.

“Most unfortunately, not withstanding our plethora of requests, Mr Johnston has, to date, refused to release our client file.”

Mr MacLean claimed the refusal to release the file was “improper, unreasonable and amounts to negligence which is causing damage to ADPL by preventing ADPL from advancing claims available to it in law”. He added: “Further, Mr Johnston's conduct brings the profession of barrister into disrepute and prejudices the administration of justice.”

Mr Johnston now works as counsel for Smith Bean & Co law firm. The complaint states that firm principal Simone Smith-Bean told ADPL her company did not hold the file and that Mr MacLean should liaise directly with Mr Johnston.

Mr MacLean alleged that during a phone call in July last year, Mr Johnston said he would release the file only if he was paid fees he was owed by Par-la-Ville Hotel & Residences Ltd.

Mr MacLean was president of Par-la-Ville Hotel & Residences when the company went into liquidation in 2015.

He faced criminal charges, along with his wife, Yasmin, former Hamilton mayor Graeme Outerbridge and City Hall secretary Ed Benevides, over the failed hotel development on Hamilton's Par-la-Ville car park. The charges against all four were dropped last year because of lack of evidence.

Mr MacLean said in his complaint to the Bar Council: “We believe it noteworthy that liquidators have been appointed for PLV and, in any event, that entity has nothing to do with ADPL's instruction of Mr Johnston …

“All claims with respect to PLV should have been forwarded to the [joint liquidators] as they now, as a matter of law, have care and control of that entity and are dealing with claims made by legitimate creditors.”

He said it was his belief that neither Mr Johnston, nor J2 Chambers, had made a claim as a creditor of PLV.

“In any event, these matters are wholly irrelevant to the ADPL's requests for release of our client file,” he added.

The earlier complaint against Mr Johnston went before a tribunal in 2017.

Such hearings are usually held in private, but the lawyer chose to have it heard in public.

He was accused by the corporation, a former client, of withholding case files after he was replaced as counsel in a constitutional dispute between City Hall and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The complaint was upheld by the disciplinary tribunal. Mr Johnston was not fined or suspended and there were no costs awarded, but the matter was published on the Bermuda Bar Association website.

The Bar Council would not confirm this week that a fresh complaint had been made or that the professional conduct committee had decided to lay charges.

A spokeswoman said: “There is a code of conduct that all barristers and attorneys admitted to the Bermuda Bar are expected to abide by.

“In the event that they do not abide by it, the Professional Conduct Committee investigates and, where appropriate, prosecutes any who fail to meet standards required.

“Under the current regulations, matters of professional conduct against members of the Bermuda Bar must remain private ... until such a time that the Registrar of the Supreme Court publishes an order following a tribunal or where an accused attorney requests that their matter be heard in public.”

Eron Hill, a trustee of the Allied Trust, said yesterday that Mr Johnston still held the client file.

Mr Johnston did not respond to several requests for comment.

On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on what we consider to be a controversial or contentious story. As we are legally liable for any libellous or defamatory comments made on our website, this move is for our protection as well as that of our readers.

Formal complaint: Eugene Johnston allegedly refused to return a file to a former client (File photograph)
Michael MacLean (File photograph)

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Published September 03, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated September 03, 2020 at 1:20 pm)

Lawyer faces fresh misconduct charge

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