Stephen Warne on professional negligence, regulation and discipline around the world

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Transitional arrangements for costs provisions of Legal Profession Uniform Law

June 21st, 2015 · No Comments

Update: The position of the post-1 July 2015 briefed barrister briefed by a solicitor retained pre-1 July 2015 is not as clear as I suggested below.  So now it’s me who’s arguably been disseminating misinformation: my apologies.  But it seems to me that there has plainly been a drafting error.  Certain that I knew what the intention of the transitional provision was, I overlooked what the actual words of cl. 18(2) say:

‘If a law practice [read ‘barrister’] is retained by another law practice [read ‘solicitor’] on behalf of another client [read, I would suggest, ‘a client’] on or after [1 July 2015] in relation to a matter in which the other law practice [read ‘solicitor’] was retained by the client before [1 July 2015]—

(a)  Part 4.3 of this Law does not apply in respect of the other law practice [as drafted, this must be a reference to the solicitor, and this is the error] in relation to that matter; and

(b)  in that case the provisions of the old legislation relating to legal costs … continue to apply.’

As drafted, there is no point to the provision.  It is otiose in the context of cl. 18(1), which is said to be subject to sub-clause (2).  It is beyond doubt in my mind that what was intended was a provision cognate with the similar provision in the Legal Profession Act 2004, which is as follows:

‘(2)     Part 3.4 of this Act does not apply in respect of a law practice that is retained by another law practice on behalf of a client on or after the commencement day in relation to a matter in which the other law practice was retained by the client before the commencement day and in that case Part 4 of the old Act continues to apply.’

If the transitional provision as enacted is given its literal meaning, which given the apparent absence of ambiguity might require sophisticated argument to avoid, then the absurd situation will arise where one part of the legal team is regulated by one Act and the other by another.  This may well be a situation where the provision is read to mean something other than what it plainly seems to say in order to avoid an absurd result which parliament could not be taken to have intended.  Nevertheless, the answer should lie in retrospective amendment, and I believe that this problem will now be raised urgently at the highest levels, so I will keep you posted.

Original post: Misinformation about the transitional provisions for the new law regulating legal practice set to commence on 1 July 2015 is circulating around the Bar.  Most people seem to understand that the question of whether the Legal Profession Act 2004 continues to have operation to a solicitor’s retainer after its repeal or whether the Legal Profession Uniform Law applies is answered by working out when instructions were first taken in ‘the matter’.  (Let me digress for a moment. What a ‘matter’ is is not defined in the new Law (or the old Act), and remains a mystery to the world of costs law, although some guidance may be found in Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council v Darkinjung Pty Ltd [2010] NSWSC 132.  It is not clear that ‘matter’ and ‘retainer’ are co-extensive, and nor is it clear that a ‘matter’ is equivalent in scope to the scope of a ‘costs agreement’ which is applicable: that, I think we can say with some confidence.  Generally, parties may agree as between themselves on what a statute is to be taken to mean.  Those who take a sophisticated approach to handling costs disclosures under the new Law are likely to reduce the scope of their risk by carefully defining what a ‘matter’ is.  More about that anon, perhaps, but the broader the retainer the more difficult the task of estimating total legal fees, and if the ‘matter’ in respect of which disclosure must be given may be attenuated by agreement, that would seem sensible from the lawyer’s point of view.  Clients ought resist such an approach and actually ask what they want to know (e.g. how much might this litigation you’re proposing for me cost if the other side appeals all the way to the High Court and things go as pear shaped as can be imagined, and what are my chances of getting out of it without having to pay the other side’s costs at different points along the way?).)

What seems not to be appreciated is that which law applies to a barrister’s brief by a solicitor (as opposed to a direct access brief) depends on which law applies to the solicitor’s retainer.  So a solicitor first instructed in relation to a matter prior to 1 July 2015 will continue to be governed by the old Act, and a barrister first briefed by that solicitor in that matter (or re-briefed in it for that matter) after 1 July 2015 will continue to be bound by the old Act too.  The transitional provision is cl. 18 of Schedule 4 to the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act 2014 and sub-clause (2), apposite to barristers, is set out at the end of the post. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Costs agreements · costs disclosure defaults · Professional fees and disbursements · Taxations

A case about a bipolar lawyer

June 15th, 2015 · No Comments

My practice has had me thinking a lot recently about the professional discipline of the mentally ill.  The legal profession has caught up with the medical profession by coming up with good policies which make clear that where mental illness can be managed in such a way as to protect clients and others to whom lawyers owe duties, managed practice by the mentally ill should be encouraged and supported.  For example, see the Legal Services Board’s policy.  The Board’s CEO, the Legal Services Commissioner Michael McGarvie, has been talking about the policy in recent weeks, and so has a Federal Court judge been talking about his own long standing clinical depression.  This post looks at what might be a sad case of a mentally ill lawyer who defended himself, and got me thinking about how mental illness is treated when it emerges in the course of investigation of disciplinary complaints.

If mental illness is not relevant to the test for professional misconduct, as the Commissioner argues and at least one text asserts, I wonder whether the Commissioner should be given a discretion not to prosecute where he finds it reasonably likely that VCAT would make a finding of professional misconduct, but the practitioner does not presently hold a practising certificate and their conduct is at least in part explained by mental illness. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Discipline · Legal Services Commissioner · mental illness · Practising certificates

VCAT’s President’s extra-judicial views on Barbaro in VCAT disciplinary hearings

June 10th, 2015 · No Comments

In my last post, I briefly surveyed VCAT’s approach to the Barbaro principle in disciplinary proceedings against solicitors.  I just came across a presentation given by the Supreme Court’s Justice Garde, VCAT’s President which touches on this issue.  The presentation is titled ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution – Can it work for Administrative Law?’. It was given on 26 February 2014, and is linked to here.  The relevant part is: [Read more →]

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Submissions on penalty in regulatory proceedings like ASIC and disciplinary prosecutions

June 8th, 2015 · No Comments

The Federal Court has given a landmark decision about regulatory prosecutions.  In federal jurisdictions and state jurisdictions which follow the new decision, professional disciplinarians like ASIC and Legal Services Commissioners will no longer be able to enter into plea bargains in the expectation that the court or tribunal hearing them will rubber stamp the agreed outcomes so long as they are ‘within the permissible range’ of penalties.  But nor will disciplinary prosecutors be able to submit what the appropriate penalty ought to be.  Rather, they will be limited to making submissions about the appropriate sentencing principles, and about similar outcomes in similar cases.

The powerful judgment is at odds with a paragraph of dicta in a recent decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal in that it applies the High Court’s decision in Barbaro, a criminal case, to the quasi-criminal realm.  How the case plays out in Victoria remains to be worked out, but if this case goes to the High Court (and both sides have filed special leave applications), all that may change. Certainly the settlement of proceedings by regulators just got more complicated.

There seems to be a discrepancy about fundamental norms of government between the dicta of our Court of Appeal and the ratio of the Federal Court’s decision.  Once that gets resolved, however, each piece of legislation setting up the regulatory regime must be construed against the backdrop of those fundamental norms, and might give rise to different outcomes.  The Federal Court approached the task of working out how Barbaro applies in regulatory prosecutions in an orthodox fashion, i.e. by a process of statutory construction based on a close textual analysis of the legislative scheme as a whole.

The Chief Justice of the Federal Court allocated three judges to hear a preliminary question in the regulatory prosecution at first instance, in which the parties had already agreed on a proposed outcome, the result of a settlement (or, if you will, a plea bargain).  The proceeding was brought against the CFMEU and the judgment’s aim was apparently to sort out once and for all if, and how, the High Court’s decision in Barbaro is to apply in proceedings for a penalty.  The mouthful of a case is reported as Director, Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate v Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union [2015] FCAFC 59, but seems set to be called ‘the CFMEU Case’.

It’s quite a judgment: indignant, keen to cut cant, and argued from first principles in relation to the place of the courts in civil society.  It is a further step in the demolition of the nonsense about disciplinary proceedings being sui generis, fundamentally distinct from criminal prosecutions, and (oh, spare me!) protective and not punitive in a way which means the protection of those against whom punishment is sought need not be extended.  The   punishment of citizens is, and must be seen to be, a job for the courts (except where parliament has expressly provided otherwise); where the State is seeking to punish citizens the label applied to the proceedings is a distraction; and in such cases, the Courts having been tasked with ascertaining the appropriate penalty, they must do so conscientiously themselves, however convenient it might be for them, for regulators, and for the regulated, to cede that task to a regulator which is part of the machinery of the executive arm of government, and to pay lip service to the inquiry conducted by the Court into the appropriateness of a deal done behind closed doors.  So said the Court.

The indignation extends to the many judges and other decision makers who have convinced themselves post-Barbaro that the decision does not apply  to them, often on the basis that criminal proceedings are special and proceedings for a penalty are civil proceedings and nothing like criminal prosecutions.  Distinguishing Barbaro away has been de jour. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Criminal liability · Discipline · Legal Services Commissioner · Legal writing · Out of court settlements · procedure · Professional regulation · prosecutors' duties · regulators' duties · Rule of law

Summary judgment in a disciplinary prosecution?

May 22nd, 2015 · No Comments

I wrote about the test case on the application of penalties privilege to disciplinary prosecutions of solicitors brought by the Legal Services Commissioner here.  Now the Commissioner has made another novel application in the same case, which usefully provides some law on the appropriateness of prosecution applications for summary judgment in disciplinary prosecutions (Legal Services Commissioner v LJS [2015] VCAT 649).  The answer, according to VCAT’s President, Justice Garde?  Not very appropriate, certainly not in this case, despite the complete non-involvement of the respondent solicitor, because: [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Discipline · Evidence · Legal Services Commissioner · procedure · VCAT Act

Lawchestra’s third concert: an afternoon at the opera; Robert Dora’s Symphony to an ANZAC

April 23rd, 2015 · No Comments

The Lawchestra is holding its third major concert.  To recap, we played a symphony and some other straight orchestral pieces in the first, and nailed it.  Then we played an ambitious programme centred on a beautiful performance of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto by Natasha Lin.  Now, we’ve teamed up with the Opera Studio of Melbourne, an elite training ground for future opera stars, to bring you the entertaining bits from the vast world of opera.  Please do come (more below).  Book here or, if you have no sympathy for the organisers who need the reassurance of advance ticket sales, pay at the door.

And there’s another thing.  Our wonderful conductor, Robert Dora, has composed a symphony (‘Symphony to an ANZAC’).  One of his other orchestras gave it its world premiere the other weekend and it will be broadcast between 11 a.m. and noon on ANZAC Day on 3MBS. I’ll be listening.  You can hear a snippet here.  Performances of new symphonies composed in Melbourne are a rarity.  And this one is approachable and wonderful: tonal, brooding, Shostakovichesque [Read more →]

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Legal Services Commissioner seeks to overturn privilege against penalties

April 7th, 2015 · 1 Comment

There is an old and well established privilege, the privilege against penalties, which is a relative of the privilege against self-incrimination.  It entitles solicitors facing disciplinary prosecution to stay silent throughout the proceedings until the end of the Commissioner’s case unless the Tribunal makes an order requiring provision of written grounds and an outline of argument identifying in broad terms what is in issue.  And even if such an order is made, compliance will not require the foreshadowing of any evidence or the admitting or denying of any facts.

The other day, a full frontal attack by the Legal Services Commissioner on the privilege in disciplinary prosecutions of solicitors did not result in it being distinguished out of existence.  Though there was no contradictor in the hearing, the President of VCAT, Justice Greg Garde, gave the challenge short shrift in LSC v Spaulding [2015] VCAT 292.

Since practitioners started increasingly exercising their right to stay silent after the disciplinary investigation has concluded and before the conclusion of the Commissioner’s case, the Commissioner has begun increasingly to seek orders for the service of a notice to admit, despite the absence of any rule-based regime in VCAT governing the consequences of non-response to such notices.  Some practitioners have consented to such orders and VCAT has made them.  There may be grounds to review decisions in such cases where the practitioner did not ‘waive’ the privilege, since President Ross said:

‘in the absence of a statutory provision to the contrary, or waiver by a respondent, the effect of penalty privilege is that a respondent cannot be ordered to make discovery, produce documents, provide information or respond to a notice to admit.’

Waiver as a concept in the law generally requires a high level of deliberate abandonment.  No doubt for that reason, the Commissioner began some time ago to alert practitioners to the existence of the privilege when proposing such orders.

President Garde has also made clear that the Tribunal itself has a duty ‘to ensure that a respondent is informed of the options in order to make an informed and voluntary decision whether or not to waive the privilege.’

The President also observed that many professionals will wish to make admissions if for no other reason than to be seen  to be appropriately cooperative, and to attenuate the issues and so diminish the costs which will be payable if the practitioner loses.  My clients often make extensive admissions, sometimes make denials, but often remain silent in relation to some issues and strenuously resist the characterisation of such silences the matters about which they have stayed silent as ‘denials’.  There is, however, nothing to be gained from consenting to an order to provide a response to a notice to admit.  When, as I have found to be the case, the notices are framed in a manner which purports to graft onto VCAT’s procedures a presumption of admission in the event of non-denial, great procedural uncertainty is generated, because, unlike in the state courts, there are no rules of procedure which provide a legal basis to generate such an admission.  And it will often be more convenient for the practitioner to craft the admissions in the form he or she considers most appropriate, possibly in a discursive letter, and at a time convenient to him or her.  Furthermore, the notices to admit usually track the allegations in the Application itself extremely closely, regardless of the admissions made during the investigation in correspondence which is annexed to the Application, so that the requirement to respond to the notice to admit is akin to a requirement to serve a defence, and the drafting, filing and service of the notice to admit generates a substantial cost on a party-party basis.

Finally, for some reason, no one ever seeks orders to serve notices to admit on the Commissioner.  If, for some reason, one were to consent to orders for the provision of a response to a notice to admit, it would seem appropriate to me to reserve a right to reciprocity. [Read more →]

→ 1 CommentMore articles on: Discipline · doctors · duty to court · Evidence · Legal Profession Act · Legal Services Commissioner · litigation ethics · natural justice · Penalties privilege · procedure · prosecutors' duties

Suspensions which are not suspensions and orders which are not orders

March 25th, 2015 · No Comments

VCAT’s latest decision to come to my attention, of Member Elizabeth Wentworth, involved another solicitor who did not lodge tax returns over an extended period. He was suspended from practice for 12 months, but the suspension was suspended provided he did not breach certain conditions in the three years after the orders.  If he does, then the Commissioner may apply for the suspension of the 12 month suspension to be lifted so it comes into operation. Member Wentworth decided to leave what exactly would happen in the case of a breach to the discretion of the any future Tribunal constituted to consider it rather than providing automatically for the suspension of the suspension to be lifted.  Legal Services Commissioner v GB [2015] VCAT 254 is interesting to me for six reasons: [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: amendment · common law · Discipline · Dishonesty · fraud · Legal Profession Act · Misconduct · Practising certificates · procedure · Suspension

Can a legal regulator rescind a decision to bring disciplinary proceedings

March 21st, 2015 · No Comments

The Supreme Court of Tasmania has made an important ruling in  Legal Profession Board of Tasmania v XYZ [2014] TASSC 33 about the finality of decisions made by legal regulators at the end of disciplinary investigations.  The decision suggests that in those jurisdictions with similar statutory provisions, until a disciplinary prosecution is launched, such decisions may be less final than I suspect many lawyers in Australia have previously believed.  A decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal, which related to a different situation where one of two courses following a disciplinary investigation was gone down and completed and the professional regulator sought subsequently to go back down the alternative course, was distinguished: Kabourakis v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2006] VSCA 301. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: amendment · autrefois acquit · Discipline · Legal Profession Act · Legal Services Commissioner · procedure · Professional regulation · regulators' duties

Solis who fail to tell client about settlement offer immune from suit

March 5th, 2015 · No Comments

Kendirjian v Lepore [2014] NSWDC 66 is only a decision of the District Court of NSW, but it purports to apply law binding on the judge, namely that identified in the NSW Court of Appeal’s decision in Donnellan v Woodland [2012] NSWCA 433.

The following facts were presumed to be true for the purposes of a summary judgment application brought by the defendant solicitor exclusively by reference to advocates’ immunity.  A man was advised his claim for personal injury was worth about $1.2 million.  Personal injury proceedings were commenced. The defendant offered to settle for $600,000 plus costs.  The man’s solicitors failed to advise him of the offer and rejected it.  When the man obtained about $310,000 plus costs at trial, he sued for the difference between his position after the trial and an appeal and the position he would have been in had he been informed of the offer, which he said he would have accepted.

The Court summarily dismissed the suit.  This passage should be carefully considered, unfortunately, by any plaintiff considering suing a lawyer for negligence in litigation, especially when the law of NSW applies, and especially when it is alleged that but for the negligence, a different final or interlocutory result would have obtained: [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Advocates' Immunity · Barristers' immunity