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Should the liability for costs of a disciplinary prosecution impact on the level of punishment?

September 6th, 2011 · 1 Comment

The answer is, at least in NSW — Yes. In Legal Services Commissioner v MB (No 3) [2009] NSWADT 313, a tribunal presided over by Deputy President Haylen gave the following reasons for punishing the respondent solicitor for gross-overcharging with a fine of $6,500:

‘The Tribunal accepts that the fine should be at the lower end of the range and so determines to impose a fine of $6,500. In arriving at this level of fine, the Tribunal has taken into account the large amount of costs to be met by the respondent practitioner and has formed the view that, in this case, the level of costs are a relevant consideration in assessing the overall penalty to be imposed upon the respondent. There appeared to be some debate arising from the discussion in Meakes as to the appropriateness of such an approach but in another context, the Court of Criminal Appeal has expressed the view that the level of costs is a relevant consideration in setting the level of a fine. In the Environment Protection Authority v Barnes [2006] NSWCCA 246 Kirby J, speaking for the court, rejected a submission for the appellant that the penalty imposed was a miniscule proportion of the maximum penalty applicable, stating that the individual fines which totalled $4,500 were accompanied by a costs order of approximately $16,000 and that the costs “were an important aspect of the punishment of Mr Barnes”. At para [88], his Honour stated:

Returning to the penalty imposed upon Mr Barnes. As a matter of first impression, the fines imposed appeared unduly lenient, suggesting error. However, the fines were part only of the penalty. Mr Barnes was obliged to pay substantial costs. Her Honour made it clear that, but for that fact, the fines she would have imposed would have been much higher.

Although Barnes involved the imposition of a criminal penalty, there is, in principle, no reason to depart from that approach when dealing with the very serious issue of professional misconduct and the level of fines that might be imposed on practitioners.’

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Tags: costs · Discipline · gross overcharging · procedure