An elite Sydney lawyer who parasitically preyed on the vulnerable, elderly and dying has finally been struck off the local legal register despite a Federal MP, two rabbis, a Senior Counsel, businessmen, a company chairman, a chairman of a public company, a solicitor and a retired Supreme Court Judge all providing “character references” and supporting the disgraced solicitor who engaged in widespread fraud and dishonest practices.
Victor Berger, a former president of the City of Sydney Law Society and solicitor of 44 years standing, has however essentially escaped with a slap on the wrist, with no criminal charges brought against him for engaging in decades-long fraudulent practices and pilfering hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients between 2007-13.
The stolen and misused funds were used to support Mr Berger’s own lifestyle, which included owning at least 12 properties and hobnobbing with Jewish religious and community leaders as well as business and political doyennes. Mr Berger was the owner and partner of Milne Berry Berger Freedman law firm since 1969 until it was dissolved in 2013 when his ongoing offending came to public light.
In one incident in 2012, Mr Berger overcharged the family of an elderly client who was aged in her 90s at the time, by almost $138,000 according to independent assessors. Amongst the charges billed to the woman’s family just a few months before her death was more than $90,000 for “non-legal work” which amounted to numerous phone calls Mr Berger made to the woman asking about her family life and household chores.
And five years prior to that rip-off, Mr Berger was part of a plan in 2007 by an immoral client who forced her own dying mother to sign over a Power of Attorney while she was in hospital with advanced Alzheimer’s and other serious medical complications.
Mr Berger only met the client for the first time in the Intensive Care Unit of the Prince of Wales Hospital on June 2, 2007 which was the day the elderly dementia patient was forced to sign the papers. In April 2008, the Guardianship Tribunal found the woman did not have the required capacity to execute the Power of Attorney and concluded the document was a nullity. Mr Berger was found to have enacted the Power of Attorney while the woman lacked capacity. Mr Berger, who has no medical or mental health training whatsoever, did not seek any medical opinion about the woman’s capacity.
Just a few days before the incident, staff at the hospital had already told the woman’s unscrupulous daughter as well as a solicitor she hired before Mr Berger that her mother was likely medically unfit to sign such documents. Thanks to Mr Berger’s actions, the daughter then used the power of attorney to procure from her mother’s $10 million estate funds of $1,000,000 to contribute to her own superannuation while also selling millions of dollars’ worth of shares once owned by her dead mother.
In yet another example of the toothless tiger and closed shop the legal industry in Australia is, the Legal Services Commissioner had also received more than 70 complaints about Mr Berger’s questionable actions in the period between 1996-2013 but kept allowing the well-connected lawyer to continue practising and ripping off clients.
It was only in October 2013 when Mr Berger’s licence to practise was suspended.
This month, the Civil & Administrative Tribunal of NSW found that Mr Berger was not even remorseful for his actions, and nor had he made any attempt whatsoever to compensate his clients and victims.
“The practitioner has not demonstrated any convincing insight into the nature of his conduct and he has not expressed any real remorse for any of his action,” the judgement against Mr Berger reads.
“There is no evidence that he has paid compensation to any victim of his unsatisfactory professional conduct and professional misconduct.”
Mr Berger only offered weak excuses for his conduct while trying to suggest he himself was facing hardship ever since 2013 when his legal license was suspended. In a bid to win some extra sympathy, Mr Berger sadly pointed out that he, his wife and their Family Trust “have had to sell about 12 properties” including their home “because of financial pressures and that the proceeds have been used to satisfy personal loans, caveats, mortgages and legal fees”. Mr Berger also used $170,000 that he had misappropriated from his elderly client in 2012 to “pay various debts and for the expenses of recovery of including legal fees I incurred in such proceedings”.
In his letter to the tribunal explaining his actions, Mr Berger claimed that he was completely unaware that what he was doing was wrong or against the law, or that he was harming innocent people and their families.
“You have revealed to me a side of my character I have not realised and must accept the possibility of same even though I have absolutely tried to do and believed I had only honest intentions,” the disgraced lawyer wrote.
“I accept that I have made errors of judgment; I have not been tough enough upon myself; and I have not been tough enough to ensure that what I am bound to do has been achieved.”
A graduate of Moriah College, Randwick Boys High School and the University of Sydney, the tribunal found that Mr Berger had used his links in political, philanthropic and business circles to hide his long-term wrongdoing behind a facade of respectability while targeting vulnerable people. As such, the tribunal gave little weight to the character references provided by leading politicians, lawyers, businessmen and even a retired Supreme Court judge. All of those who provided a character reference for Mr Berger remain unnamed.
“The clients who were found to be victims of the practitioner’s misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct were not Rabbis; they were not members of parliament, judges, Senior Counsel or prominent members of the community,” the tribunal found.
“Some of them were old; some were frail; some had cognitive decline; and some lacked the support of family and friends.
“There is no evidence that the tribunal is able to rely upon in order to find that the practitioner has learnt and changed so much from his mistakes and his suspension that he is not likely to engage in further professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct if he is permitted to resume legal practice.”