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”

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”

Liability of directors of incorporated legal practitioners for wrongdoing of fellow directors

Legislation regulating lawyers typically deals with directors of incorporated legal practices like Victoria’s Legal Profession Act 2004’s s. 2.7.11 as follows:

‘Each of the following is capable of constituting unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct by a legal practitioner director–

(a) unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct of an Australian legal practitioner employed by the incorporated legal practice;

(b) conduct of any other director (not being an Australian legal practitioner) of the incorporated legal practice that adversely affects the provision of legal services by the practice’.

A recent decision from Sydney illustrates how disciplinary tribunals approach applications to discipline innocent co-directors of wrongdoer-directors in incorporated legal practices.  Trusted non-legal practitioner directors do not necessarily need to be supervised in everything they do by legal practitioner directors unless there is a special reason to.

In the NSW case, there was a special reason: the co-director did not renew his practising certificate which lapsed on 30 June 2011.  He had failed (to the innocent co-director’s knowledge) to comply with earlier disciplinary orders requiring that he be mentored.  Contrary to his promises to the by-then-sole-legal-practitioner-director, he caused the firm to incur an unfunded liability to a valuer retained on behalf of a client in litigation.  The valuer was instructed by the wrongdoer director in August 2011.  The Tribunal found the remaining legal practitioner director guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct, but on the basis that her failure to supervise the by-then non-legal practitioner director caused the firm to incur a debt which it was unlikely to be able to pay if the litigation in respect of which it was incurred did not succeed.  The decision is Council of the Law Society of New South Wales v Loris Hendy [2016] NSWCATOD 20.

One thing which is puzzling is exactly on what basis it was said that a firm contracting personally to pay valuers, and then not paying them because it did not have the money to do so, was said to be conduct warranting discipline which the practitioner had an obligation to prevent by supervision.  After all, had the firm caused the client to contract directly with the valuers, or made clear to them that the firm would not be personally liable, they presumably still would not have been paid.  Presumably the client was always up for the disbursements, whether there was a successful outcome or not, since that is fairly standard.  And so, presumably, if the client had any money, the firm would have sued the client.  And presumably the firm believed on the basis of senior counsel’s advice that the client would succeed in the litigation and that the valuer would get paid out of the favourable costs award, and that, even if that did not occur, the firm would be in a position to meet the valuer’s fees.  Certainly, there was no finding to the contrary.

In the Victorian solicitors’ conduct rules in place from 2005 until recently, r. 26 said:

‘A practitioner who deals with a third party on behalf of a client for the purpose of obtaining some service in respect of the client’s matters, must inform the third party when the service is requested, that the practitioner will accept personal liability for payment of the fees to be charged for the service or, if the practitioner is not to accept personal liability, the practitioner must inform the third party of the arrangements intended to be made for payment of the fees.’

Compare r. 35 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules 2015. To similar effect was r. 35 of the New South Wales Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2013 (Solicitors’ Rules).  None of those were in force, of course, in NSW in 2011 when the non-legal practitioner director of the firm caused it to incur the fees, and I do not know what the rules which were in force in NSW at that time said.  At any rate, there was no reference to any such conduct rule in the Tribunal’s reasons. Assuming some similar rule was in place, it is notable that the legal practitioner director was not apparently disciplined for allowing the firm to contract the liability, but for not meeting it, or perhaps for allowing it to be contracted in circumstances where there was no guarantee that it could be satisfied if things went pear-shaped.

There are numbers of cases about the misconduct of solicitors who fail to pay counsel’s fees for no particularly good reason.  I have listed them at the end of this post.  It seems to be well established by authority that such conduct is misconduct at common law or pursuant to the generally worded statutory definitions of unsatisfactory professional conduct and professional misconduct. Couldn’t agree more, and long may such cases accumulate.  But this was a bit different.

Continue reading “Liability of directors of incorporated legal practitioners for wrongdoing of fellow directors”

Suspensions which are not suspensions and orders which are not orders

VCAT’s latest decision to come to my attention, of Member Elizabeth Wentworth, involved another solicitor who did not lodge tax returns over an extended period. He was suspended from practice for 12 months, but the suspension was suspended provided he did not breach certain conditions in the three years after the orders.  If he does, then the Commissioner may apply for the suspension of the 12 month suspension to be lifted so it comes into operation. Member Wentworth decided to leave what exactly would happen in the case of a breach to the discretion of the any future Tribunal constituted to consider it rather than providing automatically for the suspension of the suspension to be lifted.  Legal Services Commissioner v GB [2015] VCAT 254 is interesting to me for six reasons: Continue reading “Suspensions which are not suspensions and orders which are not orders”

NSW solicitor who failed to pay counsel’s fees struck off

Updated post (25 July 2014):  The answer to the question posed by the original post is: yes, he will be struck off.  Here are the reasons: Council of the Law Society of NSW V Andreone (No2) [2014] NSWCATOD 81.  His failure to make submissions on the question would not have assisted.  On the question of whether monies received by solicitors from clients for payment of counsel’s fees are trust monies, and on whose behalf they are held, see Legal Services Board v Gillespie-Jones [2013] HCA 35 about which Melbourne University’s Associate Professor Bant’s learned commentary may be found here.

Original post (published as ‘Will Solicitor Who Failed to Pay Counsel’s Fees be Struck Off?’): The Law Society of NSW wants a solicitor who persistently delayed in paying counsel struck off. The NSW equivalent of VCAT has found the professional misconduct established: Council of the Law Society of NSW v Andreone (No. 1) [2014] NSWCATOD 49, and a hearing on sentencing is pending.  In this case, clients had paid bills which included claims by the solicitor for counsel’s fees by electronically depositing monies into the firm’s office account — probably at the firm’s direction, as the Tribunal found.

The Tribunal found without reference to authority that those payments were trust monies to the extent that they satisfied the claims by the solicitor for counsel’s fees, the solicitor not having paid the counsel at the time of their receipt.  In other words, the solicitor held the monies on trust for the barristers. But it seems that the Tribunal considered the solicitor’s misappropriation of trust monies and the failure to pay the fees as separate instances of professional misconduct.  In other words, the mere failure to pay the fees, given its intentionality and persistence, amounted to professional misconduct.  This is what the Tribunal said: Continue reading “NSW solicitor who failed to pay counsel’s fees struck off”

More on the need for specific instructions before commencing proceedings on behalf of others

Update: See now Doulman v ACT Electronic Solutions Pty Ltd [2011] FMCA 232.  A solicitor accepted instructions from a fellow solicitor to recover fees allegedly owing by a client.  The proposed plaintiff was a company which the fellow solicitor had until shortly before the retainer been authorised to represent.  The solicitor, acting honestly, accepted these instructions from the fellow solicitor at face value: the proposed plaintiff was well known to him.  He found out only far down the track that the proposed plaintiff had been sold by the fellow solicitor before the instructions were given so that the solicitor had instituted litigation and bankrupted the defendant when he had no instructions to do so from the company.  The proceedings were a nullity.  Everything had to be unravelled.  The solicitor was ordered to pay the costs of this exercise on a party-party basis: he should have done a company search or sought written confirmation of the fellow solicitor’s authority to bind the company. There is a one-paragraph note of the case at ALJ vol 85 no 9 (September 2011) at 537.  Thanks to the Law Institute Library through the LIJ’s ‘In Reference’ page for bringing the case to my attention.

Original post: I had to look hard recently at the cases about lawyers’ obligation to have proper instructions before commencing proceedings on behalf of others. Pretty obvious really, but the grey area exists where lawyers receive instructions from agents of the client, especially where the agent is specifically authorised to retain solicitors, but not specifically authorised to commit their principal to litigation.  Victorian disciplinary tribunals have dealt with such conduct by meting out penalties ranging from a fine of $1,000 in 2011 money to recommending that the practitioner be struck off the rolls.  As this astonishing divergence of dispositions attests, everything depends on the precise facts and the motivations of the practitioners.

Further to this related post, what follows is my case notes of the three Victorian disciplinary decisions I am aware of dealing with this form of conduct warranting discipline.  Are you aware of any similar cases in Victoria or elsewhere? Continue reading “More on the need for specific instructions before commencing proceedings on behalf of others”

Lawyers’ false attestation of documents and fraudulent certificates of advice

Up-updated post, 18 May 2017:  See also LSC v Huggett [2017] NSWCATOD 67, which gathers together additional authorities at [63].

Updated post, 11 March 2016: In The Law Society of New South Wales v Gathercole [2016] NSWCATOD 27, the Tribunal was asked by the applicant to order the removal of the practitioner’s name from the roll for falsely attesting a wife’s signature in her absence on a document presented to the practitioner by the fraudster husband, a bank manager.  Though the Tribunal found that the conduct amounted to ‘professional misconduct of a very high degree’, the practitioner was insightful, remorseful, and had good references.  So they gave him a $5,000 fine instead.

Original post: What’s the going rate by way of penalty for lawyers successfully prosecuted for falsely attesting the execution of documents? As usual in the law of professional discipline, the cases are all over the place — what is analysed below is a collection, not a line of, authorities — but I am unaware of any case in which a lawyer’s practising certificate has been interfered with solely for purporting to sign as witness a document they did not witness the execution of or for falsely giving a certificate that advice about the document was given.  And you would have to say that a fine of a few thousand dollars and a reprimand is the going rate. Justice Kirby, then President of the Court of Appeal, adverting to the Court’s role as fixing the standards to be observed in determinations by disciplinary tribunals, overturned a disciplinary tribunal’s decision to strike off a solicitor who gave a false certificate of advice in relation to a mortgage, exacerbated the wrongdoing by oral representations to the mortgagee’s solicitor and was not frank in the disciplinary investigations.  The Court substituted a fine and a reprimand: Fraser v Council of the Law Society of NSW [1992] NSWCA 1992.

Because of the dishonesty inherent in this species of disciplinary wrong, the cases have traditionally been clear that it amounts to professional misconduct rather than to unsatisfactory professional conduct.  But the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s decision in Xu v Council of the Law Society of NSW [2009] NSWCA 430 bucks the trend and characterised one such instance as unsatisfactory professional conduct.  All of the other cases need be re-evaluated in light of the Court of Appeal’s decision.

Below are my notes of reading the cases, for a disciplinary prosecution in which I recently acted.  I was put onto some of them by readers of this blog, for which many thanks.

Continue reading “Lawyers’ false attestation of documents and fraudulent certificates of advice”

Can conduct unconnected with practice constitute misconduct at common law?

Recently, it has been suggested that misconduct unconnected with legal practice (which the High Court has referred to as ‘personal misconduct’) may constitute professional misconduct at common law: New South Wales Bar Association v Cummins [2001] NSWCA 284; Legal Services Commissioner v RAP [2009] VCAT 1200, the subject of this post.  This post considers whether that is correct, in light of A Solicitor v Council of the Law Society of NSW [2004] HCA 1; 216 CLR 253.  The answer to that question does not affect what I suggest may be a separate question, namely whether personal misconduct may warrant disbarment (which is clearly the case), since disbarment is not conditioned on a finding of professional misconduct, but is dependent on a finding of unfitness for practice.  I am interested to hear others’ views. Continue reading “Can conduct unconnected with practice constitute misconduct at common law?”

Legal plagiarism cases: a non-exhaustive review

I did a plagiarism case before the Board of Examiners last year, and looked up the cases then.  My colleague Patrick Over also reviewed them for his prosecution on behalf of the Legal Services Commissioner of the plagiarist solicitor in Legal Services Commissioner v WJK [2010] VCAT 108, and cleverly found a case from the old Solicitors’ Board which my researches did not pick up.  Senior Member Howell (who was the Solicitors’ Board, back in the day) helpfully digested the authorities (there is also, of course, Re OG [2007] VSC 520, noted by me here): Continue reading “Legal plagiarism cases: a non-exhaustive review”

Plagiarist solicitor suspended for 6 months

In Legal Services Commissioner v WJK [2010] VCAT 108, a sole practitioner who has written a legal text and published a number of articles succumbed to temptation when the pressures of life got to him and meant he did not have time to do a proper job of writing a 10,000 word research paper for his Master of Health and Medical Law at Melbourne Uni.  He plagiarised extensively from two published articles which he did not acknowledge at all. I can tell you, I presently have the greatest of sympathy for full-time lawyers who have to squeeze Masters study into their lives.  But I must confess to a degree of incomprehension as to why the solicitor, having gotten away with the plagiarism and garnered a good mark, thought publishing the plagiarism in the Journal of Law and Medicine was a good idea.

He made admissions at an early stage after he was caught out, but persisted to the end of the misconduct hearing with mitigatory evidence which was rejected as implausible.  He pleaded guilty to two counts of professional misconduct at common law which specifically alleged that his plagiarism was deliberate.  His practising certificate was cancelled and he will not be getting a new one within 6 months of the cancellation taking effect.

VCAT explores definition of professional misconduct at common law unconnected with legal practice

In Legal Services Commissioner v RAP [2009] VCAT 1200, the Bureau failed to establish a charge of professional misconduct at common law against a solicitor in respect of conduct which occurred otherwise than in the course of, and unconnected with, legal practice.  (Another charge, not the subject of this post, succeeded.) The allegation was that he:

‘deliberately misled a person with whom he had entered into a commercial transaction, thereby behaving in a manner that would reasonably be regarded as disgraceful or dishonourable by fellow practitioners of good repute and competency’.

The solicitor had negotiated in late 2005 with a car dealer for the purchase of a $1.4 million [sic.] car. Continue reading “VCAT explores definition of professional misconduct at common law unconnected with legal practice”

Beak bribe boast bars barro

Legal Services Commissioner v JDG [2008] LPT 17 is a shocking case in which a Queensland barrister was struck off after he lied when confronted by investigators with the true proposition that he had offered to pay a $50,000 bribe to a Magistrate or Crown prosecutor on behalf of a client.  He also took $59,000 in cash from the direct access client and popped it into his safe.  He used some of it to feed his gambling.  He should, of course, have chucked it into a special account.  He told his client that: Continue reading “Beak bribe boast bars barro”

Solicitor gets three year break for multiple conflict findings

In Legal Services Commissioner v DJMH [2008] VCAT 2301, Deputy President McNamara’s tribunal ordered the solicitor not to practice before 1 July 2011 for multiple findings of acting in the face of a conflict.  It is unfortunate that the reasons for decision do not allow an understanding of what was alleged.  It had something to do with conflicts of duties in lending transactions described as ‘very serious indeed’.  The gravamen of the charges, according to the Deputy President was that the solicitor: Continue reading “Solicitor gets three year break for multiple conflict findings”

Latest word on burden of proof in professional discipline ‘prosecutions’

In this post, I just reproduce what Deputy President Dwyer said recently about the burden of proof, right to silence, and inferences which may be drawn from the fact of the exercise by a solicitor of the right to silence. He said it in the context of a hard-fought hearing into the conduct of Kylie’s one-time lawyer, Michael Brereton, reported on in the previous post. Interestingly, the Tribunal was not critical of the solicitor’s decision not to give evidence, but asserted that it was free to draw adverse inferences against the solicitor under the rule in Jones v Dunkel, and did so with gusto, drawing support from Woods v Legal Ombudsman [2004] VSCA 247, and Golem v Transport Accident Commission [No2] [2002] VCAT 736.)

What Mr Dwyer said was: Continue reading “Latest word on burden of proof in professional discipline ‘prosecutions’”

Kylie’s one-time lawyer goes down, with a ‘disgraceful and dishonourable’ finding

On 13 August 2008, Deputy President O’Dwyer found charges of misconduct at common law made out against Kylie Minogue’s one-time solicitor, the man towards the centre of the government’s Operation Wickenby investigation, Michael Brereton. See Legal Services Commissioner v Brereton [2008] VCAT 1723. Mr O’Dwyer found he had transferred more than $2.3 million of clients’ money out of his trust account contrary to the trust accounting rules. Since he did not turn up to the hearing, the finding is not altogether surprising. His counsel explained the solicitor ‘was attending to important business matters overseas, having invested in an information technology business with links in America and Europe,’ which makes me wonder whether he could not have used some of his investments to appear by video link. The Age‘s report is here.

The Commissioner is to be commended for making some sense of the very complex business transactions in which the solicitor and his clients were involved, and achieving the making out of the allegations of misconduct which were made out. So too the Tribunal, which had a difficult task in the absence of participation by the solicitor, and produced a spare but careful set of reasons. But it was not all wins for the Commissioner. Continue reading “Kylie’s one-time lawyer goes down, with a ‘disgraceful and dishonourable’ finding”

Law Institute seeks 50 year ban for 62 year old solicitor

In Law Institute of Victoria v DSS [2008] VCAT 1179, the Institute sought in a misconduct prosecution an order that the solicitor not be allowed to handle trust monies for 50 years. Vice President Judge Ross described the submission as ‘somewhat excessive’.

The solicitor had stolen $75,000 from his clients and out of his trust account, lied to a trust account inspector, removed evidence so as to hinder his investigation, and involved a client in misleading the inspector by dictating a letter full of lies and having her sign it and send it to the inspector with a view to perverting the course of justice. These were ‘manifestly serious’ instances of misconduct. In a criminal prosecution, Justice Lasry had sentenced the solicitor to 18 months’ imprisonment, wholly suspended. The solicitor was suffering from a mental illness at the time when he committed the offences. A family law client had been murdered by her husband at the County Court more or less in the solicitor’s presence and he had not coped well. There was a psychiatrist’s report. The solicitor was remorseful and his remediation was well advanced. He had paid back all the stolen monies. He was working in a business which provided services to body corporates, and his employer was supportive. On his return to practice, he intended to confine himself to body corporate law.

In these circumstances, the Institute contended that an appropriate disposition for the disciplinary charges arising out of the same facts as the criminal charges was: Continue reading “Law Institute seeks 50 year ban for 62 year old solicitor”

Solicitor who blatantly lied to clients for years keeps ticket

Legal Services Commissioner v BH [2008] VCAT 687 is a case with terrible facts. A man died as a result of a crime. The family hired the respondent solicitor to act for them in crimes compensation applications. He lost the file some time into the second year of the retainer, but did not tell his clients. Late in the third year of the retainer, the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal struck out the claims for want of prosecution, but the solicitor hid the fact. Over a period of 6 months beginning a year later during which the 4th anniversary of the retainer fell, the solicitor made up a whole string of complete lies, telling his clients that VOCAT had made offers of compensation, but that they should be rejected, and that they should attend the fictitious trial. The Commissioner urged the suspension or cancellation of the solicitor’s practising certificate, but the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) declined, instead fining him and imposing conditions on his ongoing practice. Continue reading “Solicitor who blatantly lied to clients for years keeps ticket”

Two new cases from NSW

Here’s a 37,000 word long judgment in a professional negligence case against a solicitor which began in early 2000: Rebenta Pty Ltd v Wise [2007] NSWSC 1332. It does not discuss many issues of law. The reason one might want to look at it is that it is one of those rare cases where a dispute about whether there was one ongoing retainer or several more discrete retainers of a solicitor. The solicitor won after a four and a half week trial.

In The Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of New South Wales v. Sukkar [2007] NSWCA 341, the NSW Court of Appeal engaged in a surprising degree of soul searching before deciding to strike an ecstasy importer cum solicitor off the roll of practitioners. The fact that he gave false evidence in his trial did not assist him. The decision is an interesting illustration of the distinction between a finding of want of good fame and character and a finding of professional misconduct where the conduct in question is unconnected with legal practice. The Court of Appeal’s decision in the criminal appeal is reported at Regina v Sukkar [2005] NSWCCA 54. The importation of 124 kilograms of ecstasy earnt the solicitor 14 years in jail. In relation to the appropriateness of a finding of misconduct where the conduct in question is unconnected with legal practice, Basten J said in separate reasons from the majority: Continue reading “Two new cases from NSW”

Barrister who signed as witness to pay $10,000

A barrister purported to witness the signature of a wife on a guarantee at the request of his good friend the husband. But he did not witness her signature. Worse, he certified that he had explained the document to her and that she had appeared to understand it. A familiar story. As it happens, the wife suffered no loss, but she says that though she signed the guarantee, she did so under duress. Unbeknownst to the barrister, the couple’s relationship was heading for the Family Court.

The barrister cooperated fully from the outset and admitted his wrongdoing, but the investigation and hearing of the plea still ran up costs of over $5,000. The case is Legal Services Commissioner v MPRT [2007] VCAT 1986, not yet available on the web. The prosecutrix did not submit that suspension was appropriate. The barrister was reprimanded, fined $5,000 with a stay of 3 months, and ordered to pay the Commissioner’s costs