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”

Gross overcharging penalties surveyed

In Legal Profession Complaints Committee v PJO’H [2011] WASAT 95 (S), delivered on 20 February 2012 and not yet on Austlii, the Tribunal helpfully reviewed the penalties awarded in the gross overcharging cases over the years before suspending the respondent from practice for 6 months (the Committee wanted 18).  Two other things are notable about the case.  First, the Complaints Committee’s costs of the matter were $134,000 and were described as reasonable.  Second, the practitioner drafted his character witnesses’ evidence himself.  Didn’t go down well.  The decision was the work of a tribunal of three presided over by Justice Cheney.  Here’s the Tribunal’s survey:

‘In Re Veron; Ex parte Law Society (NSW) [1966] 84 WN (Pt 1) (NSW) 136, the practitioner was struck off following findings of some 65 instances of overcharging clients in respect of personal injury actions. The overcharging was found to be deliberate and there were related charges proved against the practitioner involving dishonesty or fraud in respect to the practitioner’s dealings with his clients and their money. Continue reading “Gross overcharging penalties surveyed”

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

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

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

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

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

Lawyers and the criminal law

Reproduced below is a blog post about ‘bill padding’ from the US site, Legal Blog Watch. That is where lawyers say work took them longer than it really did, and so charge commensurately more, or even make up the fact that they did work, and charge for it. Sometimes I read articles like this and wonder whether lawyers don’t think they live in a different world where, if they commit crimes, what will happen to them is that they will be dealt with by professional discipline. They think that, or course, because it’s more or less true, unless you get caught stealing from your trust account.  But the criminality of time sheet crime should not be allowed to be buried under anodyne euphemisms. ‘Bill padding’ sounds kind of cute, a necessary evil. It is a kind of newspeak. Time to do away with it. Let’s call it ‘rapacity fraud’.  It is tolerated by the profession in this sense.  There are generalised allegations of widespread bill padding.  Talk privately to costs consultants and they will tell you all about it.   But I have never heard of a firm which has even basic anti-fraud procedures to detect the practice.

My point kind of makes itself when the author says ‘allegations of bill padding … drew … strong criticism about the practice from legal ethics experts’.  Experts say fraud is bad?  Well shit Sherlock!  The 9th commandment does kind of feature relatively prominently in most systems of law.  We’re going to have the case one day when someone actually subpoenas a firm’s electronic billing system and its metadata, and diaries, analyses when the billing entries were made, and cross-examines lawyers on how they could have billed 180 units in a day and still made it to the client function at 6 p.m., or why, having billed relatively consistently every day, they would suddenly remember on the 30th of the month some comparatively vaguely described units they had forgotten to record mid-month, or why given that they had used a precedent for similar documents three times previously in the same month, they decided to draft the document from scratch, only to end up with — you guessed it — the same document as the precedent.  Now, that article: Continue reading “Lawyers and the criminal law”

Lawyers’ fees are hot news all of a sudden

Update, 26 June 2008: The managing partner of the controversial NSW personal injury practice referred to below was fined $10,000 by the Administrative Decisions Tribunal’s Legal Services List for advertising in contravention of conduct rules despite a prior warning from the Legal Services Commissioner.  One wonders whether any enquiry was entered into about how much business was generated by the advertising.  If not, the fine of $10,000 may in fact attract further breaches of the law as a cost effective means  of buying your way out of the prohibition on advertising.

The Australian reports that there are calls for national unification of the over-complicated and increasingly divergent costs disclosure regimes around the country.

Original article: Front page article in The Melbourne Times: ‘Case for Change: Putting the Cost of Justice on Trial’. It’s all about a pack of convicted crims who have set up an electronic vehicle for the dissemination of jailhouse savvy, the wonderfully named ‘Crimassist‘. They tend towards the view that legal fees are a bit on the high side. You can bet your bottom dollar that the unqualified practice boffin at the Law Institute is watching keenly despite the anonymous website proprietors’ brilliant anti-conviction technique of plastering the site with explanations that none of it is legal advice. Then there’s a long Sydney Morning Herald article about a prominent Sydney personal injuries practice which is either so seriously on the nose that it’s surprising that their practising certificates haven’t been suspended, or, as they say, victims of a terrible vendetta by embittered former employees who are controlling and manipulating their former clients. If nothing else, it must be said that the firm is very generous: when one of its clients complained of overcharging, it flicked him $100,000 and later said it was just a commercial goodwill gesture, and no admission at all of overcharging. Then Victoria’s Attorney-General has lashed out at barristers’ fees out of the blue, prompting a fairly strong response from the likes of Richter and Burnside QCs. Continue reading “Lawyers’ fees are hot news all of a sudden”

Disgruntled clients and the web

This year, I acted for a man who was so pissed off with a used car salesman, that he set up a webpage to recount his experiences. Say for the exercise the business was called Jack Maggs and Daughters Used Cars, and that its website was www.jackmaggs.com.au. My client purchased www.jackmaggs.com and went to town, in an indignant but truthful kind of a way. A suit for defamation followed. I pleaded the defence of truth, and particularised all the wrongdoing in detail. There it sat, on the public record, available to be inspected by the public. A confidential settlement was arrived at. The website is no longer there, but my client had by then made his point. Legal Blog Watch’s post ‘Who Needs a Lawsuit for Excess Fees When You’ve Got the Internet?‘ has alerted me to this website, which must strike terror into the hearts of many a law firm. It is apparent from the site that the firm has responded in the media, and the disgruntled client has responded with vigour on the blog, and on and on it goes.

The blogosphere is part of this whole trend. Consider the opprobrium which Reed Smith, a big international firm, has earned itself — rightly or wrongly — when it allegedly estimated its fees at US$50,000 in ‘a routine employment discrimination case’ and then charged its not-for-profit client 20 times that amount. See for example this post and this one, from Law.com and Legal Blog Watch respectively.

Arbitrators slice $40 million off plaintiff lawyers’ breast implant proceedings fees

22 July Update: what may be the first ever legal blog, and without doubt one of the best, Overlawyered has  a link to the arbitrator’s ruling, and links to some old posts dealing with the interlocutory stages of the case. And here’s Law.com’s article.

Houston plaintiff lawyer John O’Quinn has been ordered to repay clients $40 million in legal fees after he was found to have charged his clients for bar association fees, overheads, and flowers as part of a ‘general expenses fee’ of 1.5% of the settlement. Ironically, his former clients ganged up on him. In a class action. They wanted all the fees he charged them back — estimated at $0.66 billion:

‘A Texas Supreme Court case from 1999 opened O’Quinn up to the possibility of having to pay back all the collected legal fees. That case, Burrow v. Arce, held that if a lawyer breaks his fiduciary duty to a client by putting his own interest above the client’s, he can lose part or all of his fee — even if the lawyer did a good job.’

I’ve noted that case before. Scary. Not that he got away without penalty, exactly:

‘The order says that O’Quinn, through three legal entities under which he has practiced law, must pay back [AU$12] million he improperly charged clients and a [AU$28.5] million penalty because he broke his contract with them.

And another Court of Appeal sets aside another gross overcharging conviction

As reported in today’s Australian Financial Review, the NSW Court of Appeal has told the Administrative Decisions Tribunal’s Legal Services Division that it got it wrong when it found a Sydney solicitor guilty of gross overcharging. The case is  LN v Legal Services Commissioner  [2007] NSWCA 130  Though the solicitor signed the bill, he did not really read it, and the Legal Services Commissioner obviously didn’t think hard enough about the charge, since the solicitor got off on the basis that he did not have personal culpability for gross overcharging. It is not well understood that there is no concept of vicarious liability for professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct. He might have been disciplined for failure to supervise, I suppose, but that was not what he was charged with. The relevant decisions below are here and here.

Court of Appeal sets aside unduly harsh outcome in gross overcharging prosecution

PJQ v Law Institute of Victoria[2007] VSCA 122 is the part 1 of the last chapter in a story of good tactical plays characteristic of professional discipline specialist Sam Tatarka in the representation of a solicitor charged with gross overcharging, and applying trust monies to pay his fees without the appropriate paperwork. It sounds like a plea bargain was entered into whereby the solicitor pleaded guilty to the charges on the basis that what led to the overcharging was overzealous representation and disorganization rather than dishonesty and in return, the prosecutor — the Law Institute of Victoria — would not make submissions as to penalty. But that is speculation. When it came time for ‘sentencing’, the solicitor offered an undertaking to the Tribunal that any file in which he proposed to charge more than $20,000 would be independently costed by a costs consultant. The Tribunal enquired whether he would submit to such costing by the Law Institute’s costs assessing service. The solicitor said yes.

In Law Institute of Victoria Limited v PJQ [2005] VLPT 8, the Full Legal Profession Tribunal came down hard, accepting the expert opinion of a man without a law degree that appropriate legal costs for a proceeding of the kind in which the solicitor had represented his client were half what he had charged, and suspending the solicitor from practice for 12 months. To the surprise of the President of the Court of Appeal, the Tribunal made no mention of the alternative to suspension represented by the undertaking despite going through the ritualistic ‘no punishment happening here’ recitations (‘Our task does not involve punishment of the legal practitioner. Our task is to provide for the protection of the public, including deterrence of the legal practitioner and the profession generally from like conduct…’; ‘Conscious of the necessity to place the barrier high before depriving a member of the profession of their practising certificate we have given all the circumstances of this case the most careful and repeated consideration.’ etc.).

President Maxwell, with whom Justices Chernov and Nettle agreed, held that the Tribunal’s inexplicable failure to mention in its reasons the undertaking offer suggested that its sentencing discretion had miscarried.  His Honour actually acknowledged with refreshing forthrightness that penalisation is part of sentencing for professional discipline offences, but, by his words, sought to give real meaning to the concept that protection of the public is what professional discipline is all about, by quashing the Full Tribunal’s orders and, on resentencing, making no orders in recognition of the substantial costs already incurred by the solicitor and the partially endured suspension: Continue reading “Court of Appeal sets aside unduly harsh outcome in gross overcharging prosecution”

On the perils of the undersupervised law clerk

Legal Practitioners Complaints Committee and JCB [2005] WASAT 213

A sole practitoner dictated many precedent letters for his routine suburban personal injuries practice. His law clerk of 16 years’ experience, an arts graduate and a one-time law student, did all the work in a workers compensation file: she took instructions, signed letters taken from the precedent bank, negotiated with the counterparty, and was charged out at $240 per hour plus GST and $30 per short letter, $50 per one-page letter and $70 per long letter. The solicitor was unable convincingly to establish that he had done anything very much at all.

He was found guilty of “neglect” in failing properly to supervise the clerk and of “unprofessional conduct” in grossly overcharging. The first finding gave rise to a reprimand, the second to a $2,000 fine. Costs claimed at $10,000 were allowed at only $5,000 on the basis that the solicitor successfully resisted a third charge of constructively misrepresenting that the law clerk was a solicitor and on the basis that the retention of senior counsel by the prosecuting Committee was unnecessary. The third charge failed because no evidence was sought to be adduced of the solicitor’s complicity in the alleged deception, a timely reminder of an oft-forgotten principle that there is no disciplinary version of vicarious liability (a different concept from the wrong of failure to supervise). The law as to the supervision of clerks is well summarised in a neat and detailed judgment of Justice Barker, a Supreme Court Judge.

Continue reading “On the perils of the undersupervised law clerk”