Legal Services Commissioner publishes annual report

The Legal Services Commissioner’s website is growing some content. Her annual report for the part-financial year ending 2006 is published there. In summary:

  • For those who enjoy the suffering of others, commencing at p. 22 there is a list of all the adverse disciplinary findings made by VCAT’s Legal Practice List, and it names the practitioners involved;
  • The Commissioner’s office has 3 executives in addition to Victoria Marles: Janet Cohen (formerly the Deputy Legal Ombudsman), David Forbes, and Diana Gillespie; 9 legal staff 2 of whom are part time; (2 out of the 13 mentioned are blokes) and 19 administrative staff;
  • She received 1,218 complaints under the new Act (6 a day), of which 664 were only disciplinary (55%), 310 were only civil (25%), and 244 were both (20%) (all of the complaints figures below are only about the new Act complaints received, except where indicated);
  • Only 33 were against barristers (3%);
  • 238 involved a costs dispute (20%), a surprisingly low figure, especially given that 553 of the complaints were about costs or bills (45%);
  • Only 117 involved a pecuniary loss dispute (10%) which shows that two-thirds of the 322 complaints characterised as being about “Negligence — including bad case handling and advice” were dealt with as disciplinary complaints or costs disputes which is most surprising;
  • Only 719 were handled by the Commissioner (59%) — the rest were referred to the Law Institute and the Bar for investigation and recommendation as to ultimate decision to be made by the Commissioner;
  • 67% of those delegated to the Law Institute involved a disciplinary complaint;
  • 14% were about wills and estates, 14% about conveyancing, 18% about family law, and only 5% about crime;
  • 6% were about conflicts;
  • There were 3 complaints of sexual impropriety;
  • There were no ‘other genuine dispute’ within the definition civil disputes in s. 4.2.2(2) of the Legal Profession Act, 2004;
  • No prosecutions were brought;
  • Not a single finalised disciplinary complaint was successful (and only 1 out of the 100 old Act complaints succeeded — it resulted in a reprimand);
  • There were 3 FOI applications to the Commissioner; and
  • The going tariff for a breach of the obligation to deliver up documents within time pursuant to the Commissioner’s power of compulsion seems to be a $500 fine and costs of $1,000.

The Office had revenue of $3.4 million (almost all from the Legal Services Board) of which $1.3 million went on staff, including training (an annualised average of $73,300 per employee, some of whom are part-time, but it gets a little complicated because the Commissioner spent $205,000 on temps), $1.1 million went to the Law Institute for functions the Commissioner delegated to it (there is a list of all delegations on p. 20) and $150,000 to the Bar for the same thing.

Astonishingly, 89% of all disciplinary complaints finalised were summarily dismissed pursuant to s. 4.2.10 of the Legal Profession Act, 2004. Almost 1 in 6 was chucked within 30 days, and almost 9 in 10 within 60. To be fair, this may represent the dross which has been sifted out, since 60% of the complaints received during the reporting period were still open at the end of the financial year, and 60% of them had been open for 2 months or longer. I say ‘astonishingly’ because I perceive it to be a radical departure from the practice of the Commissioner’s predecessors. In general, though, it is a good thing if the Commissioner uses her office’s limited resources to deal doughtily with the complaints which suggest conduct conducive of condine condemnation, while giving the drossmongers and feewhiners the short shrift they often deserve.

I saw the other day a set of circumstances which was unfortunate, and which I hope is not too often replicated. The Commissioner characterised a complaint as a pecuniary loss dispute (one of the species of civil dispute) and a conduct complaint. The particulars of the complaint read, in substance — “See the attached Family Court affidavit”. Rather hastily after the receipt of the complaint, the Commissioner exercised her discretion to bypass the dispute resolution procedures with which she is tasked in relation to civil disputes by giving the client a ticket to go off and agitate her professional negligence claim in VCAT. She referred to s. 4.3.6 of the Legal Profession Act, 2004 which says she can do so if she considers the dispute unsuitable for her to attempt to settle. The matter was referred to VCAT’s Legal Practice List. Then, the Commissioner realised that because the exact subject matter of the complaint was before the Family Court she had no power to deal with the complaint, which she dismissed pursuant to the power in s. 4.2.10(1)(e) of the Legal Profession Act, 2004, which says ‘The Commissioner may dismiss a complaint if— (e) the complaint is not one that the Commissioner has power to deal with’. Yet she did not withdraw the ticket she had mistakenly given to the c lient to refer the purported complaint to VCAT insofar as it amounted to a civil dispute in the belief that she did have power to deal with the complaint.

The Commissioner settled 10% of civil disputes. She let 5% through to VCAT’s pecuniary loss dispute jurisdiction, which would explain why it’s been quiet down in the Legal Practice List. That means 85% never went anywhere for various reasons. She summarily dismissed 53%. She refused to extend time 18 times.

Of the complaints summarily dismissed, 41% were dismissed for being frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance. 9% were dismissed because the Commissioner formed the view the complaint required no further investigation. One-third were dismissed on the basis the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction.

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