Judges’ referrals to the ATO, police, Legal Services Commissioners

Often enough, judges refer the conduct of lawyers appearing before them (or disclosed by the case they are adjudicating) to the Legal Services Commissioner for investigation.  A recent example is Re Manlio (no 2) [2016] VSC 130.  Judges also refer the conduct of non-lawyer parties to investigative agencies, e.g. where a tax fraud is suggested by evidence in the case.

Generally, this is not done pursuant to any statutory directive or authority.  An exception is s. 202 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law which requires the Costs Court to refer a matter to the Legal Services Commissioner if it considers that the legal costs charged, or any other issue raised in the assessment, may amount to unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct.  (Compare s. 3.4.46 of the Legal Profession Act 2004 which authorised rather than required the Taxing Master to make a referral.)

I have never been particularly clear about the nature of such a referral, or as to the procedures which ought to be followed. Gibson DCJ set out the principles recently, at least as they apply in NSW, in Mohareb v Palmer (No. 4) [2017] NSWDC 127: Continue reading “Judges’ referrals to the ATO, police, Legal Services Commissioners”

What can barristers charge for?

I gave a presentation at the really well organised Junior Bar Conference this year.  The Bar sought questions which the junior barristers who attended wanted answers to.  One question, which I thought odd, but which I answered  earnestly, was ‘What can a barrister charge for?’  This was my answer:

The starting position is freedom of contract, such that barristers can charge for whatever they can get someone to promise to pay. The costs provisions of the LPUL (the Legal Profession Uniform Law (Victoria)) mostly do not apply in favour of commercial or government clients and commercial and government third party payers. There is newly room, therefore, for much greater creativity in contracting with such clients. Note the application of some provisions about conditional costs agreements and contingency fees, however, even in relation to such clients and such third party payers: s. 170. Continue reading “What can barristers charge for?”

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

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] Continue reading “Advocates’ immunity: at once more powerful and narrower than most yet understand”

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

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: Continue reading “Applications to extend time to tax lawyers’ bills: keep ’em tight”

Man fails to set aside compromise of taxation of costs despite drunkenness from allergy tablets

A man took 5 times his usual dose of phenergan before a mediation in a Costs Court matter in which he sought to tax his former solicitor’s fees.  Represented by a solicitor, he settled the taxation.  It is an interesting footnote that the man’s solicitor was from the rather wonderfully named Coolabah Law Chambers, and is described on the firm’s website as follows:

‘Although Jeff has sincere respect for the Bench, he is not afraid to argue and fight for his clients.  Jeff believes that each of his clients must be properly represented and must receive a ‘fair go’.  To appreciate Jeff’s keenness one has only to learn of one occasion when, during his closing address to the jury, Jeff performed an impersonation of Austin Powers in “The Spy Who Shagged Me”.  Jeff’s client was successful in that case!’

The man applied, unrepresented, to the Costs Court to have it set aside on the basis of the solicitor respondent to the taxation had taken unconscientious advantage of his phenergan intoxication in procuring the settlement.  The Costs Court referred the question to the Practice Court.

The Practice Court considered whether the determination of a mixed question of fact and law was one which could be the subject of a referral by the Costs Judge for ‘directions’ to a judge of the trial division under r. 63.51.  Bell J said it could.

But his Honour ruled that the Costs Court did not have jurisdiction to hear that question and so made the man commence a fresh Supreme Court proceeding for a declaration: [2015] VSC 417.  Bell J found that the Costs Court is a ‘statutory court of limited jurisdiction’.  That is interesting because presumably when the same work was done by the Taxing Master, the Supreme Court itself would have been exercising its unlimited jurisdiction so the creation of this Costs Court has complicated things.

Bell J found that the Costs Court did not have jurisdiction and so could not refer the proceeding to the Practice Court. The question which, on one characterisation, was whether the Costs Court should enforce a settlement of a Costs Court proceeding at a mediation ordered by the Costs Court was not one arising in the course of ‘assessment, settling, taxation or review of costs’ and so not within the Costs Court’s jurisdiction as described in s. 17D of the Supreme Court Act 1986.  Not even within the grant of such additional power to the Costs Court as is necessary to do its job in sub-s. (2).  Emerton J’s decision in Gadens Lawyers v Beba Enterprises [2012] VSC 519 about the Costs Court’s jurisdiction was not cited to Bell J, who reasoned:

‘It is true that, in the circumstances of the present case, the issues raised by the application to set aside the agreement are connected with the ‘assessment, settling, taxation or review of costs’ because, in great part, the agreement settled the issues relating to those matters in the Costs Court.  But a connection with those matters is not enough.  The issues must actually relate to those matters.  The issue is not that the set-aside application raises substantive issues of mixed fact and law, which it does, but that those issues do not relate to the ‘assessment, settling, taxation or review of costs’.’

So the man duly commenced a new proceeding which a judge of the Court referred back, perhaps a little paradoxically, to an Associate Justice who was not the Costs Judge for determination.  If you’re expecting a happy ending for the doughty self-represented client-plaintiff after this procedural buffeting, I can’t help you.  Derham AsJ found that the solicitors had been ignorant of any excema-related intoxication under which the plaintiff laboured and dismissed his application to set aside the settlement: EO v Bolton & Swan Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 91.