Multiple claims and the $15,000 limit on power

Tweed on behalf of National Exchange Pty Ltd v Griffin Law Firm [2006] VCAT 1305

A solicitor was retained to pursue parties for breaches of contract involving small sums. He fell into dispute with the client in relation to fees in 376 such matters. Mr Howell found there were 376 separate disputes each for less than the jurisdictional limit so that he had jurisdiction, and refused an application for dismissal under the power to dismiss disputes which would be more appropriately heard by a court.The Legal Profession Tribunal had unlimited jurisdiciton in relation to pecuniary loss disputes but its power to award compensation was limited to $15,000 per dispute. The balance of any claim could be sought in another forum of competent jurisdiction; it is generally thought that there was no res judicata in a decision of the Tribunal. Consequently, VCAT stands in the same position in relation to matters caught by the transitional provisions of the Legal Profession Act, 2004. Costs disputes were different. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction was limited to disputes over costs of $15,000 or less.

This was a costs dispute between David Tweed, no stranger to litigation, and his lawyer Jamie Griffin of Griffin Law Firm. He made offers to unsophisticated share owners to purchase their shares at well below market rates and then sold them for a profit. Tweed’s company retained Griffin’s firm to pursue vendors who refused to provide details to enable the purchase to be perfected. Mr Howell inferred that they probably considered themselves to have been scammed, having realised that they had sold well below market rates.

Griffin’s firm agreed to charge scale except for matters involving $500 or less in which case the next highest scale was applied. Mr Howell did not accept Tweed’s evidence that his company and the firm had agreed to a no-win no-fee arrangement.

Tweed’s company made miscellaneous complaints about Griffin’s firm’s conduct and their charges in 376 matters. In none of them were the fees involved greater than $15,000, however the total fees were far in excess of that sum. Mr Howell found that there were 376 disputes, applying what was said to have been a rule consistently applied by the Legal Profession Tribunal and its predecessor the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal that disputes involving multiple proceedings are separate disputes for the purpose of the rules, even if the disputes were similar to one another. Accordingly, he found jurisdiction.

Then Mr Howell heard an application for the dismissal of the disputes under s. 136A of the Legal Profession Act, 1996 which empowered the Legal Profession Tribunal to dismiss disputes which would be more appropriately dealt with by a Court. The application failed. Neither each separate dispute considered alone nor all of the disputes considered together were of sufficient complexity to warrant dismissal.

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