A south-east Queensland lawyer has been charged with defrauding the estate of an elderly client — a World War II refugee who survived the Nazi regime.
Police charged the 50-year-old lawyer, who cannot be named for legal reasons, in March with one count of fraud after she allegedly paid herself around $62,000 as executor for the estate of Lydia Juss.
The Queensland Legal Services Commission (QLSC) also filed a discipline application last November against the lawyer in relation to her handling of the estates of Ms Juss and seven other elderly clients.
The matter is before the Queensland Civil Administration Tribunal (QCAT).
If convicted of professional misconduct, she could be struck off as a legal practitioner.
Ms Juss, 87, survived the horrors of WWII in a German-controlled camp for five years, after her and her family were forced to flee their home in Ukraine.
Her brother Val Melnychenko said their family was among thousands of homeless WWII refugees who came to Australia in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Program.
“Lydia was very interested in helping other people, she felt happy even though she had a difficult life,” Mr Melnychenko said from his home in Victoria.
Ms Juss was in a Tugun nursing home in 2016 when she inherited the estate of her defacto husband, Leo Artemeiff — also a WWII refugee and prisoner of war.
She hired the lawyer to draw up a new will for her estate worth around $650,000.
‘They were such marvellous people’
The lawyer’s fraud charge followed a complaint from retired Queensland Police Service fraud detective, Rod Shelton, who was a neighbour of Ms Juss and Mr Artemeiff at Currumbin Waters.
Ms Juss later appointed Mr Shelton a trustee of her estate.
“I was at the nursing home when she [the lawyer] came in to prepare the new will for Lydia and this is where we spoke about money going to charity,” Mr Shelton told ABC News.
“[She] and I were to decide this together … that’s why I was included as a trustee … I told Lydia all I wanted to do was look after her and her interests.
He said after Ms Juss’s family received their inheritance, she wanted the remainder to go to charities including her defacto husband’s wish of bequeathing $50,000 to the Russian Scouts in America.
“She told me that Australia had been very good to her after arriving here after the war and she was very pleased to give something back,” Mr Shelton said.
“They were such a remarkable couple who both survived the traumas of the Second World War. Leo was Polish and drafted into the Red Army, captured by the Germans three days later and survived the horrors of a prisoner of war camp for five years. An incredible feat of survival. He died at 100 years old.”
Mr Shelton successfully applied to the Queensland Supreme Court in December 2018 to remove the lawyer as co-trustee of Ms Juss’s estate, and return all its money and assets.
Charity donations delayed
In his affidavit to the court, Mr Shelton said the lawyer paid four of Ms Juss’s relatives as per the will.
He stated he repeatedly contacted her for a year to administer the remainder of the estate.
She responded with several explanations for the delays including she, and or her relatives, were unwell, she had “extended periods of sickness”, computer problems, and a marriage break-up, Mr Shelton stated.
The alleged delays meant Ms Juss lay in an unmarked grave for nearly two years after her death, as no funds were released to pay for a plaque for a headstone for her and her husband.
It also allegedly delayed fulfilling Ms Juss’s dying wish of bequeathing thousands of dollars to charity.
Mr Shelton said after the lawyer took no action and did not reply after April 2018, he took his concerns to Queensland’s Legal Services Commission (QLSC) three months later.
Mr Shelton has provided documents to ABC News as part of his ongoing case with the lawyer.
It included an August 2018 letter from Potts Lawyers, who are representing the lawyer, to the QLSC stating their client had voluntarily stopped working as a solicitor, and relinquished her practicing certificate.
The letter also outlined that the lawyer drafted and issued engagement documents to herself which “purported to allow her to charge excessive amounts” and that, “on three occasions” she issued invoices and paid herself from estate monies held in trust for “work which had already been billed and paid for by the estate”.
Lawyer accepts plaque delay was ‘unsatisfactory’
The lawyer told her solicitors she “has been receiving psychological treatment over many years in relation to mental illness” and that her “current psychological status is not consistent with the practice of law”, according to her own lawyer’s letter.
She also passed on her apologies to the Juss family for not authorising the payment for the plaque.
In November 2019, Mr Shelton successfully applied to the Queensland Law Society’s Legal Practitioner’s Fidelity Guarantee Fund to reimburse Ms Juss’s estate for $62,000 of the money the lawyer allegedly paid herself.
Mr Shelton is also in a joint action with the QLSC to pursue the lawyer for around $25,000 in unpaid court costs owed to the Juss estate.
That matter is also before the QCAT.
Mr Shelton said if the application is successful, the money will go to the Fred Hollows Foundation.
Potts Lawyers, who represent the lawyer, declined to comment. She will appear in the Southport Magistrate’s Court next week.