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

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Advocates’ immunity: at once more powerful and narrower than most yet understand

June 23rd, 2016 · No Comments

Advocates’ immunity was, until recently, more powerful than many lawyers were aware. Since the 1 July 2015 introduction of the Legal Profession Uniform Law and the High Court’s May 2016 decision in Attwells v Jackson Lallic Lawyers Pty Limited,[1] however, it may be narrower than many realise. And perhaps not everyone is aware that the immunity these days is very likely peculiar to Australia; it is certainly not a feature of English, American, Canadian, Continental, Indian, South African or New Zealand law.[2] [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Advocates' Immunity · Barristers' immunity · Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic) · Costs Court · Discipline · Insurance · Legal Profession Uniform Law · Legal Services Commissioner · National Profession Uniform Law · negligence as disciplinary breach · Professional fees and disbursements · Taxations · The suit for fees · Wasted costs

Applications to extend time to tax lawyers’ bills: keep ’em tight

June 21st, 2016 · No Comments

Many disputes about costs are still governed by the Legal Profession Act 2004.  It specified as the time in which to seek taxation a period of 12 months.  Where a bill is given, the 12 month period starts from the date of service of the bill.  But since Collection Point Pty Ltd v Cornwalls Lawyers Pty Ltd [2012] VSC 492, it is clear that clients have until 12 months after the service of the final bill in any particular matter to seek taxation of any previous bill.  Of course what is the final bill in the same matter is a difficult question.  What is clear is that one costs agreement may govern several matters.

Applications to extend time must be made to a Justice of the Supreme Court (as opposed to any decision maker in the Costs Court or any Associate Justice) under s. 3.4.38(6).  The law is well-summarised by John Dixon J in Rohowskyj v S Tomyn & Co [2015] VSC 511, and his Honour’s guidance about the nature of an extension of time application is useful and prone to be overlooked: [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic) · Costs Court · Legal Profession Act · Professional fees and disbursements · Taxations

The Bureau de Spank’s obligation not to publish about disciplinary orders until lawyers’ appeal rights are spent

June 19th, 2016 · No Comments

Parliament is considering a bill to re-instate the disciplinary register, and to prohibit the Bureau de Spank from trumpeting its successes before the respondent practitioners’ appeal rights are exhausted: Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Amendment Bill 2016 (Vic.).  Cl. 150E of the Bill proposes to prohibit the Legal Services Board from providing to the public information about disciplinary orders made by the VCAT’s Legal Practice List while appeals or appeal rights are live.  The prohibition extends beyond publication on the proposed disciplinary register to disclosure of information to the public more generally.

There is a problem with the Bill though: it focuses its protection of the profession on prohibitions of publications by the Legal Services Board about final orders.  The Board shares a website and premises with the office of the Legal Services Commissioner.  The CEO of the Board is in fact the Legal Services Commissioner, Michael McGarvie, who is also the applicant in all disciplinary prosecutions of lawyers in Victoria.  Yet the CEO, qua Commissioner, is content for his staff to write about cases he is prosecuting, before any orders have been made and while the tribunal is considering what orders to make.  On the homepage of the Board + Commissioner’s website, no less.

If parliament is concerned to ensure that the reputation of practitioners is not to be ruined by accounts of current proceedings by one of the parties to them where the aspect of things might change dramatically upon appeal, or even by bad decisions in such proceedings which are to be appealed, it ought to consider adding the Commissioner to the class of person covered by the prohibition, and to make clear that neither the Board nor the Commissioner ought publish details of disciplinary prosecutions while they are before the disciplinary tribunal.

It is not uncommon for appellate courts — the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal — to reverse decisions unfavourable to lawyers in disciplinary prosecutions of lawyers in VCAT’s Legal Practice List, or to substitute decisions more favourable to lawyers than those of VCAT or the legal regulators.  So the no publicity pending appeal proposition actually has some important work to do in the real world.  Consider, to name a few, Legal Services Commissioner v McDonald [2015] VSC 237PLP v McGarvie [2014] VSCA 253Stirling v Legal Services Commissioner  [2013] VSCA 374Burgess v Legal Services Commissioner [2013] VSCA 142Brereton v Legal Services Commissioner [2010] VSC 378Byrne v Marles [2008] VSCA 78, Quinn v Law Institute of Victoria [2007] VSCA 122Byrne v Law Institute of Victoria [2005] VSC 509. Consider also non-lawyers: Omant v Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia [2014] VSC 512, and Towie v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2008] VSCA 157 where the Court found that VCAT’s standard orders in disciplinary hearings were contrary to the privilege against penalties.  It will be observed that some of those decisions were made by very experienced members of VCAT’s Legal Practice List, and several by its Vice-President, a judge.

[Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: appeals · Discipline · Legal Profession Act · Legal Profession Uniform Law · Legal Services Commissioner · Legal writing · litigation ethics · National Profession Uniform Law · Professional regulation · prosecutors' duties · regulators' duties · VCAT

Lawchestra’s next concert

May 18th, 2016 · No Comments

Terminus A4 poster

It’s Law Week.  And a key event is a grand Bottled Snail event  — ‘Terminus’ — combining the forces of Dan Walker’s Habeas Chorus, a choir of members of the legal profession, and Robert Dora‘s Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra, aka The Lawchestra, full of law students, barristers, solicitors, and a judge. It features, not very prominently at all, yours truly on second flute.

There is even a trailer you can watch here.  There are two performances: afternoon and evening, this Saturday, in St Paul’s Cathedral (consider bringing a small cushion).  You buy tickets here, and the profits will go to Bottled Snail which makes a substantial donation each year to the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, whose aim is to improve the mental health of lawyers.  Great strides are being made by our profession, a little late perhaps, but there is much more to be done with regard to mental health, as my own practice regularly reminds me.

W.A. Mozart’s last piece, his Requiem is the support act.  Headlining the gig, though, is the Melbourne premiere of local composer Dan Walker‘s Last Voices, a setting of the last poems of D.H. Lawrence, Robert Herrick (a 17th century poet who begat ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’), Elinor Wylie (a famously beautiful American poet popular in the roaring 20s), the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thomas Hardy of Victorian England.  It is beautiful and treads the line exquisitely between being accessible and being dumbed down.  It’s tuneful yet dissonant. Modern, yet respectful of tradition.  I love it.  It’s not available on Spotify.  There is not even a recording of it.  It’s real yet improbably transitory.  Either you come to the concert, or you miss out.

There are a lot of shows, and not much time.  So I would not be surprised, unless you are a close relative or colleague of a performer, if you thought to yourself in contemplation of your own not so distant death — Life is too short to listen to community orchestras.  But we’re absolutely nailing this one, and I have no hesitation in inviting you to come along in order to hear a great concert, rather than out of any sense of duty.  If we were to attempt Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, it could be painful. But these two pieces are the gas.

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Solicitor’s correspondence with judge telling him how immature his conduct was doesn’t go down well in disciplinary tribunal

April 9th, 2016 · No Comments

In Council of the Law Society of NSW v MAG [2016] NSWCATOD 40, a Sydney solicitor was disciplined for writing a private letter of complaint to a Federal Court judge the day after a decision was handed down, adversely to his client in favour of the Tax Man.  The next day he wrote to the trial judge a letter not copied to the other side which commenced:

‘As solicitor for the Applicant in this matter, I have serious concerns about your conduct and decision in this matter. These are:

1. The somewhat immature and inappropriate comments you made to me …’ [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: common law · Discipline · Ethics · Judges · litigation ethics · Misconduct

What quality of work defences are available in a suit for fees where client did not seek taxation?

April 7th, 2016 · No Comments

An Appeal Tribunal within the ACT Administrative Tribunal has put out a neat little decision which makes clear that where solicitors do work and bill it, where the client does not seek taxation within the time for doing so, and the solicitors sue for fees, the tribunal hearing the suit for fees still has, in the ACT at least, jurisdiction to consider defences based on the quality of the work. In particular, work which may be said to have been wasted by virtue of negligence on the part of the solicitor will not be allowed by the Court.  The lawyers in Williams Love & Nicol Lawyers Pty Ltd v Wearne [2016] ACAT 18 essentially argued that they were entitled to sue on their bills as a debt once the time for taxation had passed.

In this case, the lawyers had negligently drawn a response to allegations of misconduct by an employee without obtaining the foundational document in which the allegations were actually made.  When they belatedly obtained that document, the response had to be re-drawn.  The Tribunal drew a distinction between a defence of waste as a result of incompetence and an argument that the fees were not ‘fair and reasonable’ in a more general sense, and confirmed essentially that the client had foregone the opportunity to mount ‘fair and reasonable’ arguments by not seeking taxation of the solicitors’ fees.  Nevertheless, the Tribunal disallowed the suit for fees to the extent of the fees associated with the original drawing of the response. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Negligence · Professional fees and disbursements · The suit for fees · Wasted costs

VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice

April 2nd, 2016 · No Comments

I only learnt in the last few years that Melbourne is one of the world’s great Jewish cities, with a globally significant series of communities of orthodox adherents.  One of those orthodox communities has delivered up an interesting case.  In Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] VCAT 439, VCAT’s Acting President recently found a well known Melbourne solicitor guilty of two counts of professional misconduct, constituted by breaches of each limb of r. 30.1.2 of the solicitors’ professional conduct rules.

The rule prohibited conduct calculated to, or likely to a material degree to be, prejudicial to the administration of justice, or to diminish public confidence in the administration of justice, or adversely to prejudice a practitioner’s ability to practise according to these rules.

The practitioner’s disciplinary offence was first to state privately to his client’s father his disappointment after an orthodox Jew sitting watching someone else’s case in court had gone out of his way from the well of the court to assist police in the middle of a bail hearing in a criminal prosecution of the practitioner’s client. His second offence was committed when the man, whom I will refer to as the complainant since he lodged the disciplinary complaint which led to the practitioner’s disciplinary prosecution, rang the practitioner and asked him about comments to similar effect which the man had heard the practitioner had made, taping the call. The practitioner expressed directly to the man similar sentiments, expressly invoking the Jewish principle of ‘mesirah’ by which Jews who cooperated with secular authorities against fellow Jews in times and places where Jews enjoyed imperfect protection were ostracized. Jewish authorities have repeatedly said that the principle has no operation in modern day Australia in relation to criminal matters.

The Age has reported, in an article prominently featuring the practitioner, that victims of Jewish abusers have been pressured not to cooperate with police. It reported the Legal Services Commissioner as saying that ‘there was a general principle that made it impermissible for a lawyer to tell a witness they could not inform police about a matter because of a religious or community rule.’ I do not mean to criticise the Commissioner in this regard, because The Age sought his comments prior to the Commissioner’s receipt of the complaint, and the Commissioner was presumably simply responding to a general question about lawyers’ obligations towards witnesses in their cases. But what VCAT’s decision demonstrates is that the practitioner’s comments occurred after the conduct in question which the practitioner believed to have involved false statements based on misinformation, and were directed to a person who was not a witness and who, as far as the practitioner was aware, was simply someone who stood up in the well of the court and interfered in his client’s case. Given that, as far as the practitioner is said to have known, the man who stood up in court had no further role to play in the case or in his client’s drama more generally, it is hard to see how the practitioner could be said to have intended to pressure the man as a victim of a Jewish abuser not to cooperate further with the police in the future in bringing the abusers to justice, as seems to have been the implication. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: "disgraceful and dishonourable" · Briginshaw · common law · Discipline · duty to court · Evidence · litigation ethics · Misconduct · Rule of law · Vic Solis' Conduct Rules

Continuing professional development obligations: plus ca change…

March 31st, 2016 · No Comments

Today is the end of the CPD year, and the last day of operation of the Victorian Bar’s Continuing Professional Development Rules 2008 in Victoria.  They are hard to find now, but you can access them here.  The Legal Profession Uniform Continuing Professional Development (Barristers) Rules 2015 were made on 26 May 2015 and commenced on 1 July 2015.  You can access them here. But the relevant Committee of the Victorian Bar recently determined that compliance with the old rules would be deemed to amount to compliance with the new ones for the current CPD year.  The page on the Bar’s website with recent CPDs’ videos and other resources may be accessed (by barristers only) here. The most significant (possible) difference between the new and old rules for barristers other than new barristers seemed to be in relation to what amounts to a CPD activity. Under the new rules, a CPD activity must be: [Read more →]

→ No CommentsMore articles on: Legal Profession Uniform Law · Practising certificates · Professional regulation

What is the duty of care in tort of a man with florid paranoid schizophrenia?

March 19th, 2016 · No Comments

Some cases are just dead interesting.  Dunnage v Randall [2016] 2 WLR 839, [2015] WLR(D) 287, [2015] EWCA Civ 673 is one of them.  A man sued the estate of his late uncle for compensation for injuries he suffered when his uncle poured petrol on himself and set it alight.  Despite the man’s efforts to prevent this tragedy, his uncle, a sufferer of schizophrenia, died.  The man jumped off a balcony to escape, having suffered burns.  Now you might think it heartless to sue to the disadvantage of the beneficiaries of the uncle’s estate in the circumstances.  But of course there was an insurer to upset the analysis.  The uncle was insured under a household policy against liability for accidentally causing bodily injury.  It was the insurer arguing that the mad have a different duty of care.  The trial judge agreed.  The Court of Appeal reversed.  Lady Justice Rafferty’s leading judgment is stylish.

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Judge puts solicitors’ negligence case on ice pending outcome of High Court challenge to advocates’ immunity

March 18th, 2016 · No Comments

In Cairncross v Anderson [2016] NSWSC 258, Justice Button was asked to summarily dismiss a negligence claim against a solicitor on the basis that it was doomed to fail by virtue of the solicitors having taken the defence of advocates’ immunity.  The negligence is said to have arisen in the course of the Great Southern proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria.   In the course of the decision which the Court made yesterday to put the strike-out motion on ice, part-heard pending the High Court’s judgment, the judge had to assess the likelihood of the law changing.  This is what he said:

  1. First, a reading of the transcript of the special leave hearing establishes that (to use a phrase that I used in discussion with the parties at the hearing) there is a “reasonable circumstantial case” that the High Court will undertake a “root and branch” reconsideration of the immunity.
  2. Secondly, the parties respectfully predicted that the hearing of the appeal in the High Court would take place in March 2016, and that one might expect a judgment some months after that. Indeed, as at today the hearing in that Court has concluded, and one may respectfully expect a judgment shortly.
  3. In other words, I think it quite possible that the fundamental legal principles that underpinned the motion placed before me could be subject of significant revision by the ultimate court of this nation within three months or so, and within six months of the hearing of the motion.

I certainly hope that the immunity is abolished or greatly reduced in scope.  I am sick of charging people with good cases against litigation lawyers money to tell them that they should not sue, or that if they choose to sue there is a risk that their claim will be struck out with costs.

Just the other day, the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled that a solicitor who failed to tell his client the trial date, failed to prepare any evidence or arguments, failed to brief counsel to appear, and failed to turn up, so that the case proceeded undefended, unbeknown to the client, and the client lost catastrophically, was protected by the immunity in respect of that conduct.  The immunity has been held to extend to intentional torts, fraudulent conduct, and a failure to tell a client about a settlement offer which went unaccepted and turned out to be a lot better than the result obtained at trial.

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