A recent decision by the NSW Supreme Court has affirmed a longstanding principle of good professional practice: don’t have sexual relationships with clients!
Vincent Stanizzo (pictured) was a Sydney solicitor charged with six criminal counts including sexual assault, hindrance of investigation, intimidation and the making a false statutory declaration. All counts arose from a complaint made by one of his clients.
The complainant had known Mr Stanizzo personally for 26 years before the pair entered a professional relationship in early 2008 when the complainant was trying to sell her property. After the original sale of the property fell through, Mr Stanizzo offered to purchase half of it.
The complainant said Mr Stanizzo refused to hand over payment at the office and instead requested the transaction occur at Mr Stanizzo’s private residence. The complainant said she was desperate for the money and so agreed. She claimed non-consensual sexual intercourse followed and that later she was subject to death threats, further sexual assaults and physical violence by Mr Stanizzo who told her to ‘keep quiet’. The complainant did not report any of this until a year later.
The complainant brought in a witness for her case – a solicitor who worked with Mr Stanizzio. This witness corroborated the complainant’s story and soon assisted police in recording Mr Stanizzio bribing the witness to sign a statutory declaration supporting his version of events.
But it soon became apparent that there might have been an ulterior motive for the criminal complaint. There was still ongoing civil and financial issues between Mr Stanizzo and the complainant, with original investigators concluding the ongoing civil issue might be a motive for the report for the complainant’s leverage or gain in her civil case. The witness himself had since been in conflict with Mr Stanizzo and left his firm to work elsewhere.
All criminal charges against Mr Stanizzo were finally dropped when it was proved the complainant had in fact received her payment for the property well before attending Mr Stanizzio’s private residence, now seemingly of her own volition.
But the complainant persevered with a civil claim against Mr Stanizzo for the sexual assault. She only had to prove this on the balance of probabilities rather than the criminal charges which required proof beyond reasonable doubt. The judge was satisfied that the unlawful conduct had occurred and ordered Mr Stanizzo to pay $135,000 in damages. Mr Stanizzo also sued the state of New South Wales for malicious prosecution but failed there too and was ordered to pay the costs on both counts.
Sexual predators beware – even if you escape criminal prosecution you might still be made to pay!