Handling a high-profile legal case can make a lawyer’s reputation – think Robert Kardashian and O.J. Simpson – but they definitely come with challenges.
Jirsch Sutherland partner Malcolm Howell is finding plenty of challenges after taking on an appointment instigated by the Australian Tax Office, as trustee of the bankrupt estate for “Gangland” widow Roberta Williams. The Federal Court declared Roberta, who was married to crime figure Carl Williams, bankrupt in November 2016, owing almost $300,000 in unpaid taxes.
According to Malcolm, while the case initially went to the Australian Financial Security Authority (AFSA) as the Official Trustee, under a provision within the Bankruptcy Act it can transfer cases to private Trustees.
“There was an issue involving a house in this matter,” Malcolm says. “Roberta was making claims on behalf of her daughter [with Carl – Dhakota Williams] for a share in a property held by the late George Williams. Consequently, AFSA transferred the matter to Jirsch Sutherland to investigate Roberta’s affairs and to locate any assets held by her or on her behalf.”
Roberta has repeatedly failed to file legally required documents stating her income, assets and debts but taking action is proving difficult, Malcolm says. “This case is a little bit different to others in that it is proving impossible to get Roberta to talk to us,” he says. “My job is to pick up where AFSA left off and try and gather up all the assets, cash, businesses, cars, property – anything that the bankrupt might have and try to find where all the money went.”
Malcolm says his key role is to investigate the financial affairs of the bankrupt/directors to find out where the money has gone and realise any available assets for the benefit of creditors.
“In Roberta’s case I believe she has some assets – not held in her name but in someone else’s name,” he says. “But my problem is that I don’t have access to funding to allow me to take on the challenge of undertaking public examinations.”
Malcolm explains if you haven’t got money in the job, which in this case Jirsch Sutherland hasn’t, you can make an application for funding to the ATO. “But to get the funding you must meet very stringent criteria, so it is almost impossible to get it passed,” he says. “The ATO wants to see a return on their investment before it funds a case so you need to show you are pursuing a particular property or asset. In this case I’m not doing that, rather I’m trying to conduct an examination that will eventually lead me to pursue property or assets.”
According to Malcolm, because he can’t meet the funding criteria, the matter cannot progress. “I have sent out notices and left phone messages for Roberta, which she has ignored. I have subsequently filed an offence referral with AFSA and it is now in its hands to prosecute. Unfortunately, there is not much more I can do at this stage,” he says. “When you deal with these sorts of cases you generally find it difficult to get any information out of people and it’s also difficult to get funding to undertake the necessary investigations.”
While Malcolm says these are not cases he would actively seek out, he stresses as a registered trustee “I’m not going to knock them back”.
“I’ve been involved in many cases where they have links to underworld figures including a group allegedly involved in terrorism,” he says. “You don’t seek them out but they’re there and when they pop up you have to deal with them.”
Malcolm says the key challenges with cases such as these is getting people to respond to requests for information and getting funding to pursue assets.
“If I had funding I could chase down documents and information that may assist in locating assets for the benefit of creditors,” he says. “One way to do this is to require those involved to attend Court for public examination. This includes compelling them to produce relevant documents to the Court.”
Malcolm feels the government needs to consider providing greater accessibility to funding to allow investigations to be undertaken in these types of situations.