What is the duty of care in tort of a man with florid paranoid schizophrenia?

Some cases are just dead interesting.  Dunnage v Randall [2016] 2 WLR 839, [2015] WLR(D) 287, [2015] EWCA Civ 673 is one of them.  A man sued the estate of his late uncle for compensation for injuries he suffered when his uncle poured petrol on himself and set it alight.  Despite the man’s efforts to prevent this tragedy, his uncle, a sufferer of schizophrenia, died.  The man jumped off a balcony to escape, having suffered burns.  Now you might think it heartless to sue to the disadvantage of the beneficiaries of the uncle’s estate in the circumstances.  But of course there was an insurer to upset the analysis.  The uncle was insured under a household policy against liability for accidentally causing bodily injury.  It was the insurer arguing that the mad have a different duty of care.  The trial judge agreed.  The Court of Appeal reversed.  Lady Justice Rafferty’s leading judgment is stylish.

The permissible forensic uses of historical mental illness in professional discipline trials

Professor Dal Pont’s excellent text Lawyers’ Professional Responsibility (5th ed., 2013) suggests at [23.145] that mental illness will rarely provide a defence to a disciplinary prosecution, the purpose of which is protective rather than punitive.  He argues, in part, that the public needs protection just as much from the mentally ill who do bad things as from the mentally flourishing who do wrong.  But that reasoning does not have any application where there is not a temporal proximity between the moment of determining liability and the moment at which the putative wrongdoing occurred. In my experience the glacial pace of disciplinary investigations usually mean that the time for setting sanctions is years after the conduct in question.  Very often, I find myself acting for practitioners whose minds are flourishing much more than at the time of their wrongdoing.

I always thought (or perhaps more accurately, hoped) that Dal Pont was a little pessimistic about the possibility of mental impairment being relevant to the determination of the question of whether unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct is.  True, there are some decisions broad statements in which support that position, but the authorities are a bit all over the place, and there are so many different kinds of conduct warranting discipline and so many fact scenarios that it seemed to me that the law must be more nuanced than some of those broad statements suggested.

Last year, VCAT’s Legal Practice List last year ruled, contrary to the position advanced by Victoria’s Legal Services Commissioner, that evidence of mental impairment was relevant to the question of whether conduct was professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct, and heard evidence from a psychologist during the liability phase of the hearing.  The two species of conduct warranting discipline arising from a breach of the rules have traditionally been delineated by enquiring whether the breach was innocent or whether it was deliberate or reckless, so that it clearly incorporates a subjective enquiry. VCAT’s decision to hear the psychological evidence on the question of liability was, as I have learnt in the course of penning this post, consistent with that in New South Wales Bar Association v Butland [2008] NSWADT 120.

Now the Supreme Court of NSW has reviewed the authorities and published a useful decision in the matter of BRJ v Council of the New South Wales Bar Association [2016] NSWSC 146 (Adamson J), making clear that mental illness may be relevant to the question of liability, as well as to the question of penalty where it is of course of critical relevance, citing Robinson v The Law Society of New South Wales (Supreme Court of New South Wales, Court of Appeal, unreported, 17 June 1977), a decision I have not come across before. Essentially, Justice Adamson said, it all depends on whether there was a mental element to the kind of conduct warranting discipline which is charged.  Conduct described as a failure to maintain standards of competence and diligence is not something to which the practitioner’s mental impairment is relevant.  In charges which rely on the practitioner having a particular state of mind do require analysis of the degree to which the practitioner’s state of mind was flourishing.  Professional misconduct at common law is determined by what competent and reputable peers would think of the conduct.  What they would think is affected by the degree to which the practitioner’s mind was flourishing at the relevant time.

Unfortunately for the barrister who was the subject of the disciplinary hearing under appeal in this case, all this meant that though the Tribunal and the Court accepted that her conduct was caused by her psychiatric illness, she was nevertheless properly found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct constituted by failing to maintain standards of competence and diligence and acting in the face of a conflict between self-interest and duty to her client.  The test for such unsatisfactory professional conduct does not enquire into the mind of the practitioner, the Court found.  Accordingly, the psychiatric causation was legally irrelevant.

See also this sister post, about the disciplinary Tribunal’s and the Supreme Court’s willingness to allow the practitioner to change her plea, once after the liability hearing but before the delivery of reasons and once on the eve of the hearing of the appeal.

Continue reading “The permissible forensic uses of historical mental illness in professional discipline trials”

Lawyers withdrawing ‘guilty pleas’ in disciplinary prosecutions at first instance and on appeal

BRJ v Council of the New South Wales Bar Association [2016] NSWSC 146 is the subject of this sister post about the permissible use of evidence of mental impairment.  Two aspects of it deserve their own separate post.  The respondent barrister changed her plea twice, once after the liability phase of the hearing but before the decision as to liability was given and once the night before the hearing of her appeal in the Supreme Court of NSW.  Each time, she was allowed to do so. Continue reading “Lawyers withdrawing ‘guilty pleas’ in disciplinary prosecutions at first instance and on appeal”

A case about a bipolar lawyer

My practice has had me thinking a lot recently about the professional discipline of the mentally ill.  The legal profession has caught up with the medical profession by coming up with good policies which make clear that where mental illness can be managed in such a way as to protect clients and others to whom lawyers owe duties, managed practice by the mentally ill should be encouraged and supported.  For example, see the Legal Services Board’s policy.  The Board’s CEO, the Legal Services Commissioner Michael McGarvie, has been talking about the policy in recent weeks, and so has a Federal Court judge been talking about his own long standing clinical depression.  This post looks at what might be a sad case of a mentally ill lawyer who defended himself, and got me thinking about how mental illness is treated when it emerges in the course of investigation of disciplinary complaints.

If mental illness is not relevant to the test for professional misconduct, as the Commissioner argues and at least one text asserts, I wonder whether the Commissioner should be given a discretion not to prosecute where he finds it reasonably likely that VCAT would make a finding of professional misconduct, but the practitioner does not presently hold a practising certificate and their conduct is at least in part explained by mental illness. Continue reading “A case about a bipolar lawyer”

The Lawchestra’s second ever concert

The Lawchestra, about which I have troubled you before, is playing again this Sunday after we totally nailed the last concert (photos from the brilliant young photographer and law student Sean R. Ali here). It was thanks to the good work of Robert Dora, the conductor.  Man does he have a hard job.  Orchestras like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra run themselves and the conductors just add an air of distinguished flamboyance.  But conducting a community orchestra, the conductor really has to work hard to cue people, explain to them without speaking or stopping wagging the baton that they came in a bar early, as well as drag some dynamic contrast out of players more worried about playing the right notes than where to diminuendo.  It’s a high-risk, high-stress job, and Dora the Conductor is great.  So is the gorgeous soloist, Natasha Lin.  You should definitely come: book here.  Even The Age says so. Continue reading “The Lawchestra’s second ever concert”

A last-ditch argument

A South Australian solicitor’s last-ditch argument in his brave but unsuccessful battle to stay on the roll of practitioners was:

‘Mr Prescott contends that this Court should not act on the false testimony finding in the strike off application because, even though his testimony in the 2011 hearing was false, he had deluded himself into believing the truth of that testimony.’

The Supreme Court of South Australia did not fall for it, despite the solicitor having obtained from a Mr Ireland, psychologist, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder which hindered his ability to give reliable testimony.  The reasons are at Legal Practitioners Conduct Board v Prescott [2014] SASCFC 41. The Court said:

‘His demeanour when giving evidence before this Court exuded a sense of self assurance and confidence which was incongruous with his claim that he has been overwhelmed by the disciplinary proceeding he has faced over the last decade.’

Needless to say, the Court also engaged in a great deal of other analysis, ultimately preferring the evidence of the Bureau de Spank’s psychiatrist.

Now if there is a jurisdiction where you would hesitate about running an ‘I was mad; I knew not what I done, Guv’ defence, it is probably South Australia, where they had a Royal Commission about the police’s handling of a solicitor whose car collided with a cyclist who died soon after.  The rabid response of an ill-informed public whipped up by shock jocks and politicians insufficiently unwilling to exercise restraint to the solicitor’s explanation for his conduct after the accident (that he was in a state of post trauamatic stress and was acting more like an automoton than usual) continues to provoke headlines there, many years after the tragedy.

The Lawchestra

Indulge me while I go off message for a second.  Mind you, I am going to tell you about a band that is decidedly heavy with costs lawyers, since Liz Harris is on harp and I’m playing flute, so in my own mind I have a weak but arguable case for relevance.  This Saturday sees the debut performance of the Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra, aka the Lawchestra, following in the steps of the several excellent doctors’ orchestras in Victoria (and even an engineers’ orchestra) and lawyers’ orchestras in London, and America. There are a handful of barristers, many solicitors, and some law students, brought together with patience and brill all at once by the rather wonderful conductor Robert Dora. We’ve got it all, mate: harp, bass drum, cor anglais, horn francais, piccolo, bass trombones, and they all get a thrashing. You should come, because it’s going to be a cracker, and also because you might very well get to hear me play in a general pause: book here. Continue reading “The Lawchestra”