Suit for fees goes badly wrong but could have gone much worse

An ACT practitioner seems to me to have been skilfully represented, escaping with findings of unsatisfactory professional conduct, a reprimand and a fine.  The decision in Council of the Law Society of the ACT v LP [2017] ACAT 74  just shows how far cooperation and a persuasive articulation of remorse and insight can go.

The practitioner illegally sued his former client for fees in circumstances where he knew that the very person who had instructed him, a director of the client who had given a director’s guarantee and so was a third party payer, had sought taxation.  Generally speaking, solicitors cannot sue their clients for fees once the client has commenced taxation.

In support of applications for default judgment, and to wind up the corporate client, the practitioner represented to the court, including on oath, that there was no dispute about fees.  Given that the director, a builder, was the alter ego of his building company client, the proposition that the company did not dispute the fees attracted a charge of professional misconduct by swearing a false affidavit, a thoroughly serious allegation.  By a plea bargain, it was downgraded to a weird charge of unsatisfactory professional conduct (varied by me for readability):

The practitioner breached his general law ethical duty of professional conduct or the duty owed to the director of his former client pursuant to Rule 1.1 of the Legal Profession (Solicitors) Rules 2007 to continue to treat the former client fairly and in good faith, and not to treat it otherwise than in an honourable and reputable manner during the dispute over costs owed by the director or the former client.

Rule 1.1 was itself a weird old rule:

‘A practitioner should treat his or her client fairly and in good faith, giving due regard to the client’s position of dependence upon the practitioner, his or her special training and experience and the high degree of trust which a client is entitled to place in a practitioner.’

Perhaps the horribleness of the original false affidavit charge’s drafting contributed to the prosecution’s willingness in the end to back away from it and retreat into the weirdness set out above.  The original charge (again, varied by me for readability) was: Continue reading “Suit for fees goes badly wrong but could have gone much worse”

Is there an obligation to put in cross-examination that the witness is lying?

Professor Hampel has been telling me recently that the rule in the House of Lords’ judgment in Browne v Dunn (1893) 6 R 67 is much mis-understood by advocates and decision makers alike.  Another judge apparently gives a talk to the participants in the Victorian Bar’s readers course each intake emphasising the narrowness of the obligation.  Good advocates and judges, it appears, find unnecessary and inelegant recitations of strings of ‘I put it to yous’ as irritating as good advocates find irritating the suggestions from not so good decision makers that matters which were not required to be put to a witness must be put, or, after the event, ought to have been put.

The general tenor of these teachings is that there is an obligation to put matters to opposing witnesses less often than is sometimes assumed, or that a counsel of caution in putting things to witnesses to be on the safe side of the rule has its forensic downsides. As I understand it, the perception is that some counsel see the need to lay out their whole case to opposing witnesses to give them an opportunity to comment on it, regardless of whether the witness is already well appraised by witness statements or documents of the cross-examiner’s client’s case or whether the matters put in fact contradict or tell against any evidence of the witness.

Professor Hampel’s half-serious theory about the confusion flowing from the decision — that no one has ever read it — may be correct.  Someone else seems to have had the same concern, having set up a website devoted solely to putting the hitherto obscurely reported and difficult to find decision on the net.  (And, what do you know? The case is actually about relations between solicitors and clients which is principally about privilege and the liability of a solicitor to action for words spoken between solicitor and client.)

But there is one aspect of the rule which repeatedly attracts criticism when it is not complied with.  There is an obligation to squarely put to a witness in cross-examination allegations of dishonesty (or, to use a precise synonym, fraud). Lord Herschell said at 70-71: Continue reading “Is there an obligation to put in cross-examination that the witness is lying?”

The ‘implied undertaking’ which is really a substantive legal obligation

Associate Justice Derham from time to time produces beautifully succinct and thorough summaries of the law, especially laws relating to procedure, in his careful judgments.  Busy practitioners are very grateful.  Here is his most recent such summary, from Fotopoulos v Commonwealth Bank of Australia [2017] VSC 61.  It is a helpful exposition of the substantive legal obligation which is sometimes referred to as an ‘implied undertaking’ or ‘the Harman principle’ after the House of Lords’ decision in Harman v Secretary of State for the Home Department [1983] 1 AC 280. Continue reading “The ‘implied undertaking’ which is really a substantive legal obligation”

Tribunals not bound by the laws of evidence

Update, 10 August 2017:  It once seemed to me having read Pizer’s Annotated VCAT Act (2015) at [8.60] that there was an argument to be made that the Evidence Act 2008 might have some operation to the extent that it is not over-ridden by s. 98 of the VCAT Act 1998, in that the Evidence Act 2008 empowers courts to do certain things which might not be described as part of the ‘rules of evidence’ referred to in s. 98. The Evidence Act 2008’s definition of ‘Victorian court’ (in whose proceedings the Act is said to apply) is inclusive of tribunals bound by the law of evidence, rather than excluding all tribunals which are not bound by the law of evidence, and VCAT has been regarded as a ‘court’ for various purposes. But the Court of Appeal has effectively decided (albeit without considering my thought) that the Evidence Act 2008 simply does not apply in VCAT: Karakatsanis v Racing Victoria Limited [2013] VSCA 305 at [32] – [34].

Update, 9 August 2017:  To gather the law together in one place:

(a) Pizer & Nekvapil, Pizer’s Annotated VCAT Act treats this question at [VCAT.98.160] citing Curcio v. Business Licensing Authority (2001) 18 VAR 155 at [26]; Pearce v. Button (1986) 8 FCR 408 at 422; Golem v TAC (2002) VAR 265 at [9(iv)]; Secretary to the Department of Infrastructure v Williamstown Bay and River Cruises Pty Ltd [2011] VSC 191 at [59]; and Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria v Saddik [2010] VCAT 366 at [44].

(b) A reader commended Justice Giles’s article ‘Dispensing with the Rules of Evidence’ at Vol 7 No 3 Australian Bar Review.

(c) Consider also Danne v The Coroner, [2012] VSC 454, noted here.

Original post: Here is a useful collection of interstate and federal law about what statutes are actually to be taken to mean when they say that a tribunal is not bound by the laws of evidence (like VCAT), from Justice Refshauge’s reasons in Pires v DibbsBarker Canberra Pty Limited [2014] ACTSC 283: Continue reading “Tribunals not bound by the laws of evidence”

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”

Disciplinary prosecution halted because Law Society’s reasons for deciding to prosecute were inadequate

The NSW Supreme Court has quashed decisions of the NSW Law Society to commence disciplinary proceedings against a Sydney solicitor following complaints that the solicitor advanced allegations of negligence in a costs assessment against two barristers without an adequate factual foundation: SAL v Council of the Law Society of NSW [2017] NSWSC 834, a decision of Wilson J. The Court restrained the Council from continuing the disciplinary prosecution which had been stayed pending the application for judicial review. The Council’s reasons were inadequate in not dealing with exculpatory material advanced by the practitioner during the investigation, and in not disclosing the Council’s path of reasoning in relation to why the conduct was professional misconduct rather than unsatisfactory professional conduct or why it was appropriate to prosecute rather than make an in-house determination such as a reprimand and a compensation order.

The implications of this decision are profound, for many a set of reasons at the conclusion of a disciplinary investigation are likely no better than those which were examined in this case, for the simple reason that no one has ever really sought to take the adequacy of these kinds of reasons to task.  First, those who are subject to current prosecutions might seek prohibition to stop them in their tracks: if you are involved in a disciplinary prosecution, careful study of this decision is advised. Secondly, with the rise in the quality of reasons at the conclusion of a disciplinary prosecution which one presumes the decision will generate, it may be hoped that better decisions about what to prosecute will be made.  Continue reading “Disciplinary prosecution halted because Law Society’s reasons for deciding to prosecute were inadequate”

The Civil Procedure Act’s overarching obligation to keep costs proportionate

The Civil Procedure Act 2010 applies to proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court, County Court, and Supreme Court but not federal courts or VCAT. Its overarching purpose is to

‘facilitate the just, efficient, timely and costs effective resolution of the real issues in dispute’: s. 7. Continue reading “The Civil Procedure Act’s overarching obligation to keep costs proportionate”

Appeals from VCAT on the basis of inadequate reasons

A failure to give reasons is an error of law.[1] Seriously inadequate reasons are corrosive of public confidence in the administration of justice and ought not to be tolerated by an appeal court, since justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. This is the first public policy informing the requirement for reasons by courts and court-like tribunals. As the Supreme Court has observed:

‘To have a strong body of evidence put aside without explanation is likely to give rise to a feeling of injustice in the mind of the most reasonable litigant.’[2]

That is especially so in relation to factual determinations where a right of appeal lies only on a question of law. Even more especially so in a quasi-criminal[3] prosecution with serious consequences for the practitioner in which a disciplinary prosecutor carries the burden of proof as described in Briginshaw v Briginshaw. Continue reading “Appeals from VCAT on the basis of inadequate reasons”

$5,000 fines in lawyers’ disciplinary prosecutions

In this post, I noted the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s review of fines in solicitors’ disciplinary proceedings. I did my own little survey of Victorian cases recently in order to justify to the VCAT a joint submission as to penalty following a plea.

How naughty does a lawyer have to be to cop a fine of $5,000 in a disciplinary prosecution where that is the principal penalty (often paired with a reprimand, and costs of about $5,000)?  This naughty:

Continue reading “$5,000 fines in lawyers’ disciplinary prosecutions”

NSWCA surveys fines in NSW lawyers’ discipline decisions over a decade

Russo v Legal Services Commissioner [2016] NSWCA 306 was the subject of my previous post. The Court engaged in a comparatively sophisticated review of disciplinary outcomes in like cases.  The purposes of this post is to reproduce that review and comment on the variables which ought to be taken into account in any proper survey of past outcomes.

To survey penalties in like cases has always been an important part of sentencing and should be an important part in imposing disciplinary sanctions.  Barbaro  (2014) 253 CLR 58; [2014] HCA 2 and Cth v Director, Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate [2015] HCA 46; (2015) 326 ALR 476 do not suggest to the contrary.  They say that the purpose of a survey of like sanctions is to promote consistency in penalties but not the establishment of a range of available sanctions deviation from which is appellable.  Buchanan JA observed in R v Macneil-Brown [2008] VSCA 190, (2008) 20 VR 677 at [130]:

‘counsel can best assist a sentencing judge, not by advancing what they consider to be sentences at the lower or upper limits of a sound sentencing discretion, but by making submissions as to the existence and nature of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and providing some guide to the manner in which other judges have approached like cases by supplying sentencing statistics and citing passages from decided cases which bear upon aspects of the instant case.’

I would submit that any survey of fines as a disciplinary sanction must take into account, as an important aspect of the analysis, the financial situation of the person or persons liable to pay it.  The specific deterrence of a fine will vary greatly from one practitioner to another.  Practitioners who struggle, for personal reasons, are more likely to get themselves into trouble in the first place, and to exacerbate it by less than perfect intercourse with the Legal Services Commissioner.  Their financial situations often deteriorate too.  Specific deterrence may be achieved by imposition of a fine much smaller than would be imposed on a flourishing practitioner raking it in.  General deterrence will also be achieved if the Tribunal is transparent in taking account of financial circumstance.  In such a case, the Tribunal might indicate the kind of fine which might have been imposed had the practitioner enjoyed an average post-tax income.

Furthermore, the costs burden borne by the practitioner ought also to be taken into consideration.  Costs and fine are inter-related in this way: Environment Protection Authority v Barnes [2006] NSWCCA 246 at [88] (Kirby J speaking for the Court) applied by analogy in LSC v Bechara [2009] NSWADT 313. The extraordinary costs practitioners are liable to in Victoria following disciplinary prosecutions would very often be more than adequate to achieve specific and general deterrence.  If you are prosecuted and reprimanded, made the subject of an editorial on the front page of the Commissioner’s website, and have to cough up $40,000 in unrecoverable solicitor-client costs reasonably incurred and costs liability to the Legal Services Commissioner, that is going to make you think just as hard about doing it again as any comparatively trivial fine you might cop.

Finally, one must be astute to inflation.  In my experience, people tend to exaggerate the effect of inflation when considering older fines.  Here is a calculator which assists in measuring in today’s dollars a fine imposed some years ago.

For some reason, notwithstanding that NSW is now a part of the legal profession uniform law, the other participant in which is Victoria, no Victorian fines were part of the survey.  That strikes me as unusual, since there is a whole statutory office the purpose of which is to promote interstate uniformity in the application of the Uniform Law: the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation.  Russo’s Case was decided under the old legislation which the LPUL replaced, and which legislation in fact governed the prosecution was one of the issues on appeal.  Interestingly, apparently because it was thought that there were no relevant differences between the two regimes, that question was not decided.

This is what the NSWCA said about its survey of fines, and about the appropriate fine in this case: Continue reading “NSWCA surveys fines in NSW lawyers’ discipline decisions over a decade”

NSW solicitor who didn’t pay counsel’s fees struck back on

Salvatore Russo, a solicitor of 29 years’ standing, was struck off NSW’s roll of solicitors on 16 April 2016 by NCAT.  He had received payment from his client for counsel’s fees but not paid counsel for years. Then he was high-handed in response to the client’s entreaties when counsel sued the client directly.  The Court of Appeal found a denial of procedural fairness by NCAT.  The Tribunal had telescoped the questions of liability and penalty into one hearing.  It had failed to give Mr Russo sufficient notice of the fact it was considering striking him off despite the fact by the end of the trial, the Commissioner was not seeking such an outcome any more. Now he’s been struck back on by the NSW Court of Appeal, a fine of $20,000 substituted for his misconduct: Russo v Legal Services Commissioner [2016] NSWCA 306.  (In fact, the striking off never came into operation, because he got a stay along the way.) Continue reading “NSW solicitor who didn’t pay counsel’s fees struck back on”

Legal Services Commissioner’s new decision making powers

The Victorian Legal Services Commissioner has published a report on his new proactive regulation of the profession.  It tells how risk profiles of practices are being constructed with the assistance of academics to target trust audits and audits of firms more generally (a new thing for law practices which are not ILPs).  It also tells about the exercise of the power to make binding decisions, and alerted me to the fact that the Commissioner now publishes redacted versions of costs determinations at this page. The report says: Continue reading “Legal Services Commissioner’s new decision making powers”

Applications to stay disciplinary decisions pending appeal

I had to convince the Legal Services Commissioner to consent to a stay of orders suspending my client pending an appeal he has brought from VCAT the other day.  Happily the Commissioner consented.  For next time, I squirrel away this re-statement by the New South Wales Court of Appeal of the application to this class of case of the law governing applications for stays in civil proceedings pending appeal in Griffin v Council of the Law Society of New South Wales [2016] NSWCA 275.  (I reported on the first instance decision here, and this latest decision reveals that the solicitor has applied for the removal of his appeal to the High Court so it can rule authoritatively on the application of the freedom of political speech to criticism of the third arm of government, the judiciary.) Continue reading “Applications to stay disciplinary decisions pending appeal”

Judicial review of decisions to dismiss disciplinary complaints

A man was acquitted of criminal charges.  The prosecution’s appeal failed.  He complained about the police’s lawyers’ conduct to South Australia’s Bureau de Spank, the Legal Practitioner Conduct Commissioner.  The Commissioner dismissed the complaint.  There was a statutory right of appeal in respect of some but not all categories of decisions at the conclusion of a disciplinary investigation.  Dismissals of complaints were not decisions which attracted a right of appeal.  Furthermore, the Commissioner argued, the man had a right  essentially to prosecute the lawyers privately for misconduct as an ‘aggrieved person’ under s. 82(2)(d), Legal Practitioners Act 1981 (SA).

The Commissioner applied unsuccessfully for the summary dismissal of the judicial review application.  The Court found that even though in any ordinary prosecution which would have followed a disciplinary complaint, the parties would be the Commissioner rather than the complainant on the one hand and the lawyer on the other, the complainant’s connection as the object of the alleged misconduct to the subject matter of the complaint was sufficient to give him standing (or, more precisely, to avoid summary termination of his proceedings on the basis of lack of standing).  And that was so notwithstanding the statutory scheme for appeals which conspicuously excluded him from its tenderness and notwithstanding any right he may have privately to prosecute the lawyers.  The decision is reported as McLeod v Legal Profession Conduct Commissioner [2016] SASC 151.

The situation in Victoria is impacted, in respect of complaints to the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner to which the Legal Profession Uniform Law apply  by part 5.6 of chapter 5 (ss. 312 – 314).  Decisions of the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner under chapter 5 are ‘final, except as provided by this Part’.  The Commissioner is empowered to review his own decision but only at his absolute discretion.  And lawyers have a right to appeal to a person who is presumably intended to be VCAT from a disciplinary sanction imposed administratively by the Commissioner or a compensation order imposed by him for $10,000 or more.

As to the law in relation to the same question in Queensland, see Murphy v Legal Services Commission [2016] QSC 174.

Privilege and disciplinary investigations

Lawyers have an obligation proactively to assert and protect the privilege enjoyed by their clients and former clients: Re Stanhill Consolidated Ltd [1967] VR 749 at 752. I wrote about it in this post about the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic).  Lawyers have no implied or, I would suggest, ostensible authority to waive privilege belonging to former clients. The administration of justice will protect the privilege of persons who are unaware of the issue arising and make no assertion of the privilege: Legal Services Board v Garde-Wilson [2007] VCAT 1406 at [89].

In investigations of complaints by former clients about their former lawyers, no privilege issue arises, either under the Legal Profession Act 2004 or the Legal Profession Uniform Law.  The complaint would amount to an implied waiver at common law, and the question is put beyond doubt by statute.  Of course, this proposition has its limits and the wholesale use of client secrets against them in a manner disproportionate to the need to divulge them in response to their complaint is a seriously ugly look.  The issue of client privilege arises where disciplinary investigators are investigating complaints by non-clients, or in own motion investigations.  So, for example, I am advising in relation to a complaint made by the husband about conduct by the wife’s solicitors in a matrimonial proceeding between them.

Where a lawyer purports to waive a former client’s privilege without the client’s instructions, or simply fails to consider the question before handing documents over to the State, the law requires ‘the cat to be put back in the bag’ as far as possible: B v Auckland District Law Society [2003] UKPC 38 at [69]; British American Tobacco Australia Services Limited v Cowell [2002] VSCA 197 at [192].  So a disciplinary tribunal might well not receive, or put from its mind, evidence of privileged communications obtained by legal regulators in the course of investigations of non-client complaints where the client had not waived privilege, and indeed exactly that occurred in a VCAT case in which I was involved.

The law in relation to privilege and non-client complaints under the Legal Profession Act 2004 was clearly declared by VCAT.  The situation faced by  lawyers investigated under the LPUL following the complaints of non-clients, and in own motion investigations, in respect of pre-LPUL conduct is not so clear.  It is the subject of this post, which suggests that notwithstanding what the Legal Services Commissioner will tell you is a clear abrogation of privilege by the LPUL for all investigations conducted under it, lawyers in such circumstances should think carefully before giving up privileged communications without their former clients’ informed consent.  They should, in my submission, at least alert their clients to the possibility that the privilege might still be available to be asserted and give them the opportunity to assert it, if they care to sufficiently.

It will be increasingly important in the future to make clients aware that lawyer-client confidentiality has been largely done away with: all a person curious about the advice being obtained by his adversary need do is make a complaint about the adversary’s lawyer.  The old advice that ‘everything you tell me is strictly confidential’ cannot now be given without risking a negligence suit. Every time a solicitor tells a battered woman that whatever she tells him will be just between her and him, and he will seek her permission before using the information publicly or even in the Family Court, will have to add ‘unless your boyfriend or his father or a men’s rights action group make a disciplinary complaint against me, as they are perfectly entitled to do’.  So too the QC representing BHP in relation to tax matters: ‘Of course you understand that all this is privileged (unless the judge, who’s getting pretty cranky at me, refers me off for investigation by the Legal Services Commissioner)’.  I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic; I’m acting at this very moment for a solicitor whom the Commissioner is compelling to divulge privileged communications connected with the subject of proceedings, in a complaint by the other side to the proceedings, mid-proceedings.

Continue reading “Privilege and disciplinary investigations”

Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it

Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] QCAT 237 is a decision of a disciplinary tribunal presided over by Justice David Thomas, President of QCAT and a Supreme Court judge. It is therefore of high persuasive value, and treats Queensland provisions which are the same as the equivalent Victorian provisions. And it provides what I suggest with respect are the correct answers to the following questions:

  • How negligent do you have to be before you can be found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct as defined in provisions which say that the concept includes ‘conduct that falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that a member of the public is entitled to expect of a reasonably competent’ lawyer holding a practising certificate? (Answer at [44] and [27]: substantial and very obvious fallings short of the standard, established by direct inferences from exact proofs.)
  • What must be pleaded specifically in a disciplinary charge? (Answer at [82] – [92]: all states of mind, not only dishonest intents, and all facts to be relied on (‘the charges to be levelled must be fully and adequately set out in the Discipline Application. As a matter of procedural fairness, the Practitioner should not be left in any doubt as to the extent of the allegations that is to be met.’)
  • To what extent is a disciplinary tribunal constrained in its decision making by the allegations specifically made in the charge? (Answer at [96] – [108]: absolutely: if no state of mind is alleged, the prosecution should not be allowed to call evidence as to state of mind; ‘it would be wrong to admit evidence the principal purpose of which is to establish conduct that lies beyond the ambit of the charge’.)
  • Does the mere fact that charges are not allowed on taxation mean that there has been overcharging such as to warrant discipline? (Answer at [76] – [77]: no)

The Tribunal dismissed charges against a solicitor who lodged a caveat pursuant to an equitable mortgage without checking that it satisfied the Statute of Frauds’ writing requirements and against a partner of her firm who took over her files when she was on holidays and billed the client for the work in attempting unsuccessfully to register the caveat.

I move from the specific facts of this QCAT case to general comment (what follows is certainly not veiled reference to the conduct of the Commissioner’s counsel in QCAT). There is a very real reason to insist on the particularization of states of mind in disciplinary tribunals, including particulars of actual and constructive knowledge. These details do not always get left out just because it is thought that disciplinary tribunals are not courts of pleading and such minutiae is not appropriate. Nor do they just get left out because they are thought to be inherent in the allegation, or because of incompetence, or mere mistake. Rather, they get left out because bureaucrats have investigated incompetently and when competent counsel come to plead disciplinary applications based on the investigation, they do not have a sufficient factual foundation to make these allegations, or perhaps are simply too timid.

But sometimes counsel with civil practices, untutored in the art of prosecutorial restraint, and safe in their private belief that the practitioner is in fact much more evil than incompetent investigation established, might fall prey to temptation. Mealy-mouthed, ambiguous allegations might be made which require the practitioner to get into the witness box. Then, all manner of unpleaded allegations as to states of mind and as to completely un-pleaded conduct, justified in relevance as tendency evidence or circumstantial evidence of the pleaded facts, might be cross-examined out of the practitioner and an unpleaded case presented to the disciplinary tribunal in closing. In a tribunal not bound by the rules of evidence, such questioning may be waved through with lip service to the proposition that objections will be dealt with by according appropriate weight to the evidence in the final analysis. Queensland leads the charge against such conduct, and I can’t help thinking it’s because Supreme Court judges seem to get involved in disciplinary decisions more often up there. All power to them. So impressed am I with this latest judgment, I have decided to go on a study tour of the Sunshine Coast in the September school holidays.

Continue reading “Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it”

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”

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

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.

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

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

Update, 5 October 2016: this decision is under appeal.  See this post.

Original post: 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 …’ Continue reading “Solicitor’s correspondence with judge telling him how immature his conduct was doesn’t go down well in disciplinary tribunal”

VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice

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. Continue reading “VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice”