Controversial attorney Zuko Nonxuba has effectively conceded in court that he overcharged a severely disabled client to the tune of over R4-million, which he has now agreed to immediately pay back.
It has taken over three years of threats, reports to the Law Society and expensive high court litigation to get Nonxuba to pay his paraplegic former client, Avela Mabuti Mathimba his due.
Nonxuba has now conceded that contingency fee agreements he alleges he concluded with Mathimba – which allowed him to grab some 62% of his client’s damages awards – were unlawful. He has also agreed to pay all Mathimba’s legal costs incurred in the three-year battle.
The attorney has been exposed by the Dispatch and sister newspaper Sunday Times as a serial over-charger who has fleeced clients of millions of rands.
In a separate case last year in which another client tried to recover money from Nonxuba, Judge Jeremy Pickering was so incensed at what he referred to as evidence of “gross misconduct and gross over-reaching”, that he referred the court papers to the Law Society.
In that matter, Nonxuba took 80% of a client’s R1.1-million Road Accident Fund (RAF) settlement intended to help her care for her severely brain damaged child.
He billed her R950000 for his services and gave her a cheque for just R195000. In Mathimba’s case, Nonxuba took R5.7-million of Mathimba’s R9.1-million damages paid out by the health department and the Road Accident Fund in two separate claims.
In fact, if the additional R1.2-million, which the health department contributed towards Nonxuba’s legal fees, is taken into consideration, the attorney scored pay of almost R7-million from the two cases he ran on Mathimba’s behalf.
According to court papers, Mathimba sued both the RAF and the Eastern Cape health department after a terrible accident in the Lusikisiki area in 2004 left him badly disabled when he was just 14.
The 28-year-old is now paralysed in both legs and has no proper function of his bowel or bladder.
He also suffered terrible pressure sores due to neglect in a state hospital. In 2013, both the RAF and the health department finally paid out what was owed in terms of court orders. The RAF paid Nonxuba R2.5-million for Mathimba and the health department just over R6.9-million.
The department paid Nonxuba a further R1.2-million to cover all the essential legal costs he had incurred litigating the case on Mathimba’s behalf. But this was not enough for the attorney who, according to court papers, paid nothing to Mathimba, insisting first that a curator ad litem be appointed to manage Mathimba’s affairs. Finally, due largely to media pressure and a court order, Nonxuba paid Mathimba some R3.2-million last year, claiming the rest was owed to him for legal fees in terms of contingency fee agreements.
In court papers, it is suggested that in terms of the law, Nonxuba had drastically over-reached in what he had charged.
A contingency fee agreement can never result in the lawyer getting more than 25% of the total damages paid out to his client. Mathimba said the contingency fee agreements were therefore null and void.
Examples of over-reaching included billing Mathimba for 43 hours of work in one day, billing him at an attorney rate for administrative work done by non-attorneys, billing him for non-existent disbursements and for items that could not be related to either of his two court matters. In his first answering affidavit Nonxuba accepted that the contingency fee agreement did not comply with the Contingency Fee Act and was void but maintained he was due a “reasonable fee” for legal services for two complicated and drawn-out matters.
In that affidavit he undertook to engage a cost consultant to prepare a new attorney and client bill.
The resulting bill from the cost consultant sliced his total earnings from the two cases by R4-million, a pay cut he said he would accept “without demur”.
He tendered to immediately pay the R4-million to Mathimba. The matter was to be argued yesterday in the Grahamstown High Court but the parties entered into settlement negotiations on the basis of Nonxuba’s offer to pay Mathimba another R4-million and costs.
But Nonxuba’s correspondent attorney, Mark Nettelton, yesterday afternoon said the matter had been postponed as a result of a disagreement over the terms of the settlement.