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”

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”

Legal Services Commissioner seeks to overturn privilege against penalties

There is an old and well established privilege, the privilege against penalties, which is a relative of the privilege against self-incrimination.  It entitles solicitors facing disciplinary prosecution to stay silent throughout the proceedings until the end of the Commissioner’s case unless the Tribunal makes an order requiring provision of written grounds and an outline of argument identifying in broad terms what is in issue.  And even if such an order is made, compliance will not require the foreshadowing of any evidence or the admitting or denying of any facts.

The other day, a full frontal attack by the Legal Services Commissioner on the privilege in disciplinary prosecutions of solicitors did not result in it being distinguished out of existence.  Though there was no contradictor in the hearing, the President of VCAT, Justice Greg Garde, gave the challenge short shrift in LSC v Spaulding [2015] VCAT 292.

Since practitioners started increasingly exercising their right to stay silent after the disciplinary investigation has concluded and before the conclusion of the Commissioner’s case, the Commissioner has begun increasingly to seek orders for the service of a notice to admit, despite the absence of any rule-based regime in VCAT governing the consequences of non-response to such notices.  Some practitioners have consented to such orders and VCAT has made them.  There may be grounds to review decisions in such cases where the practitioner did not ‘waive’ the privilege, since President Ross said:

‘in the absence of a statutory provision to the contrary, or waiver by a respondent, the effect of penalty privilege is that a respondent cannot be ordered to make discovery, produce documents, provide information or respond to a notice to admit.’

Waiver as a concept in the law generally requires a high level of deliberate abandonment.  No doubt for that reason, the Commissioner began some time ago to alert practitioners to the existence of the privilege when proposing such orders.

President Garde has also made clear that the Tribunal itself has a duty ‘to ensure that a respondent is informed of the options in order to make an informed and voluntary decision whether or not to waive the privilege.’

The President also observed that many professionals will wish to make admissions if for no other reason than to be seen  to be appropriately cooperative, and to attenuate the issues and so diminish the costs which will be payable if the practitioner loses.  My clients often make extensive admissions, sometimes make denials, but often remain silent in relation to some issues and strenuously resist the characterisation of such silences the matters about which they have stayed silent as ‘denials’.  There is, however, nothing to be gained from consenting to an order to provide a response to a notice to admit.  When, as I have found to be the case, the notices are framed in a manner which purports to graft onto VCAT’s procedures a presumption of admission in the event of non-denial, great procedural uncertainty is generated, because, unlike in the state courts, there are no rules of procedure which provide a legal basis to generate such an admission.  And it will often be more convenient for the practitioner to craft the admissions in the form he or she considers most appropriate, possibly in a discursive letter, and at a time convenient to him or her.  Furthermore, the notices to admit usually track the allegations in the Application itself extremely closely, regardless of the admissions made during the investigation in correspondence which is annexed to the Application, so that the requirement to respond to the notice to admit is akin to a requirement to serve a defence, and the drafting, filing and service of the notice to admit generates a substantial cost on a party-party basis.

Finally, for some reason, no one ever seeks orders to serve notices to admit on the Commissioner.  If, for some reason, one were to consent to orders for the provision of a response to a notice to admit, it would seem appropriate to me to reserve a right to reciprocity. Continue reading “Legal Services Commissioner seeks to overturn privilege against penalties”

New cases

Legal Services Commissioner v Dempsey [2010] QCA 197 is an unsuccessful appeal from a disciplinary prosecution in which findings of dishonesty were made.

Dye v Fisher Cartwright Berriman Pty Ltd [2010] NSWSC 895 is a case in which an application for a costs assessment (NSW version of taxation) outside the allotted 12 month period succeeded.

Young v Masselos & Co [2010] NSWDC 169 is one of those cases where a solicitor negligently let a limitation period go by and damages had to be assessed based on the plaintiff’s prospects of winning the case foregone.

Council of the Law Society of New South Wales v Harrison [2010] NSWADT 201 is a decision about the Law Society’s successful application to amend a charge against the respondent solicitor.  It reviews a lot of NSW law about the requirements for pleading disciplinary charges, and considers the application of Aon Risk Services Australia Ltd v Australian National University (2009) 239 CLR 175; [2009] HCA 27 to disciplinary hearings.


The rule against duplicity in disciplinary charges

‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’, a Melbourne lawyer’s criminal law blog,  explained the criminal law rule against duplicity here.  I am not much interested in it from a professional discipline point of view, and it seems the courts tend not to get over-excited about it either (though the lawyer made some progress with it in Law Society of NSW v Shalovsky [2008] NSWADT 14).  In the course of my readings about other things, I came across the Court of Appeal’s discussion of the principle as applied in a professional discipline prosecution of a lawyer in Woods v The Legal Ombudsman [2004] VSCA 247. Despite the numbering below, the first paragraph is in fact [39]:

  1. The rule against duplicity ordinarily prohibits a prosecutor from charging in one count of an indictment, presentment, information or complaint two or more offences provided by the law.[11] It seems plain enough that the basis for the rule is fairness to the defendant in the sense of his or her being informed, at the very outset, what is the specific offence which is being alleged and, if it is established, to have certainty of what charge he or she has been found guilty. Thus, as Evatt, J. explained in Johnson v. Miller[12]: Continue reading “The rule against duplicity in disciplinary charges”

Commissioner’s obligation to charge dishonesty if he intends to allege it

Relatively recently, I posted on the question of whether a Bureau de Spank desiring to rely on a practitioner’s dishonesty or other form of conscious wrongdoing must expressly allege it in the charge, and discussed Walter v Council of Queensland Law Society Incorporated (1988) 77 ALR 228 at 234; [1988] HCA 8.  Now, in Legal Services Commissioner v Madden (No 2) [2008] QCA 301 the Queensland Court of Appeal has had a go, and reversed a decision of the Court’s Chief Justice sitting on the Legal Practice Tribunal.  The solicitor had previously been disciplined in relation to his trust account.  He was charged with gross delay in litigation which resulted in applications by the other side to compel the achievement of various interlocutory steps.  He dealt with those applications without advising his client, agreed on his client’s behalf to pay costs, withdrew money to pay those costs from monies held in trust on account of fees and disbursements, and then charged the client fees for his work in fixing up his own mistake.  He also acted for both husband and wife in the preparation of a pre-nup, apparently stuffing it up, and then later acted in a matrimonial dispute for the husband alone, described as a particularly obvious conflict of duties.

The Chief Justice made findings of dishonesty in the absence of any allegation of dishonesty in the charge.  One might say, in fact, that he went out of his way to do so.  First he sought comment in relation to whether on the agreed facts, the Tribunal was free to draw inferences that dishonesty actuated the solicitor’s conduct, and invited the Commissioner to amend the charge so as to allow exploration of that issue.  His Honour adjourned the hearing to give the Commissioner time to think about that. On the return of the hearing, the Commissioner declined the invitation to amend.  So the Tribunal put out a document specifying, as a matter of procedural fairness, the inferences it was considering drawing, and invited argument.  The solicitor swore an affidavit responding to the Tribunal’s document.  The Commissioner’s counsel cross-examined the solicitor, but did not put it to him that he had acted dishonestly. The Tribunal then concluded that the solicitor had acted dishonestly, and decided to strike him off rather than go with the fine and reprimand recommended by the Commissioner.  Ooffa!

‘Wrong way. Go back!’ said the Court of Appeal.  It started with a general proposition:

’54 It is … a well recognised rule of practice in civil proceedings that, although the word “dishonesty” is not necessarily required, any charge of dishonesty must be made in clear terms.  In a well known passage in Belmont Finance Corporation Ltd v Williams Furniture Ltd & Ors [1979] Ch 250 at 268  Buckley LJ said: Continue reading “Commissioner’s obligation to charge dishonesty if he intends to allege it”

Disciplinary charges and intentional wrongdoing

Update, 4 December 2009: see now Legal Services Commissioner v Madden (No 2) [2008] QCA 301.  What the Queensland Court of Appeal said there about Walter’s Case, the subject of this post, is reproduced at the end of the post.

Original post: Does a lawyer’s Bureau de Spank have to say in a charge in a disciplinary prosecution that the norm allegedly transgressed was transgressed deliberately or recklessly, if that’s what they desire to prove?  In the old days, deliberate or reckless transgression was what distinguished professional misconduct from unsatisfactory conduct, the lesser form of disciplinary offence.  Nowadays, it is only a ‘useful guide’ in distinguishing the two.  So a finding of misconduct might, theoretically, be made in respect of conduct by a person ignorant of the norm transgressed, or who simply made a mistake about a relevant fact. And so there is a particular reason now why it is desirable to know whether dishonesty is alleged, making it more important than ever to be informed by the charge if the Bureau is going to contend at the hearing that the solicitor intentionally did wrong, or was dishonest.

Back to 1988 and a unanimous High Court decision of the Mason Court which did not make it to the CLRs and which I read for the first time only recently: Walter v Queensland Law Society [1998] HCA 8; (1988) 77 ALR 228; 62 ALJR 153.  J R S Forbes’s Justice in Tribunals (2nd ed., 2006) suggests at p. 132 that it stands for the proposition that if a professional regulator wants to establish dishonesty or wilful wrongdoing it should say so, also citing Melling v O’Reilly, Appeal 6/91 Misconduct Tribunal, Criminal Justice Commission (Qld), 9 December 1991. Continue reading “Disciplinary charges and intentional wrongdoing”

Doctors, psychologists, sex and former patients

In Re a Psychologist [2009] TASSC 70, the Supreme Court of Tasmania quashed a decision of the Psychologists Registration Board of Tasmania to suspend a psychologist for 6 months for entering into a sexual relationship with a former patient fewer than 2 years after the end of the therapeutic relationship.  In fact he married her.  A couple of newspaper articles are here and here.

The Supreme Court quashed the decision because the Board switched from considering these allegations as a breach of a code of conduct to considering them as an allegation of professional misconduct at common law without adequately bringing the switch to the unrepresented psychologist’s attention.  Also because the reasons were inadequate.  Justice Blow engaged in a mini-review of recent cases about health professionals and sex with former patients: Continue reading “Doctors, psychologists, sex and former patients”

Byrne v Marles reversed by legislation

I wrote about Byrne v Marles [2008] VSCA 78 here, and suggested reversal by legislation as a possible outcome.  The government slipped the Professional Standards and Legal Profession Act Amendment Act, 2008 through pretty quietly.  Two new sub-sections in the Legal Profession Act, 2004 add to the existing parent sections that nothing within them gives lawyers a right to be heard in relation to how a complaint is to be dealt with, or whether it should be summarily dismissed.  The relevant sections including their additions are set out below, and apply to complaints received by the Commissioner after 11 December 2008. I suggest that regardless of whether the Commissioner has an obligation to invite lawyers to do so, they should often take up these issues at the outset to ensure that there is in fact a valid disciplinary complaint, that its boundaries are clear and not exceeded, and that the Commissioner does not otherwise act without power.

Continue reading “Byrne v Marles reversed by legislation”

Court of Appeal wreaks havoc with most current Legal Services Commissioner investigations

Update, 2 September 2010: Just noticed this and thought to store it away here as potentially interesting: http://jade.barnet.com.au/Jade.html#article=229752.

Update, 7 August 2010: The saga continues.  See this post.

Update, 17 June 2008: The Age has caught up with this story. It’s a funny old article. Weirdest is this comment ‘A prominent senior counsel said the system was unfair, and any complaint should be forwarded immediately to the subject of the complaint.’ In my experience, the Commissioner does almost invariably send the complaint immediately to the solicitor, and that’s not what the case was about anyway.

Original post: In Byrne v Marles [2008] VSCA 78, the Court of Appeal has thrown a very lean cat amongst some very fat pigeons in a decision which may invalidate all current investigations of the Legal Services Commissioner unless it is overturned on appeal or remedial legislation is passed with retrospective effect (which was the response after the great delegation debacle). The Court found that the Commissioner’s referral to the Law Institute for investigation of what she characterised as a disciplinary complaint was ‘invalid’. In following her absolutely standard practice, the Court said the Commissioner had failed to give natural justice to the solicitor by deciding to characterise the complaint as a disciplinary rather than civil complaint and by deciding not to dismiss it summarily without investigation, without allowing the solicitor to be heard in relation to those preliminary decisions. Anyone — complainant or lawyer — who has a current complaint which is not heading in the desired direction should seek advice from a lawyer with expertise in relation to the professional discipline of lawyers. It is conceivable that the decision may provide options for those against whom professional discipline prosecutions have succeeded under the Legal Profession Act, 2004. Given that the Commissioner never, in my experience, invites discussion about the preliminary questions of whether to dismiss the complaint before commencing an investigation, or on the proper characterisation of the complaint, it seems likely that most of the Commissioner’s decisions to investigate complaints will be ‘invalid’. Continue reading “Court of Appeal wreaks havoc with most current Legal Services Commissioner investigations”

Procedural fairness: “Murray letters” considered by Victorian Court of Appeal

B (A Solicitor) v Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd (2002) 6 VR 642 (Ormiston, Charles and Batt JJA)

The Law Institute corresponded with the solicitors in this matter between 1998 and October 2000. The CEO Ian Dunn, wrote what is known in the game as “a Murray letter” on 16 October 2000. That is a letter summarising the tentative conclusions of an investigation giving a practitioner a final opportunity to comment before a final decision to lay a charge. The two solicitors in this case were given 7 days in which to respond. One of them replied at length and indicated he did not desire an extension of time, the other did not request an extension. Later, their lawyers took the point that the charge was invalid and the Tribunal’s jurisdiction not properly invoked. The Tribunal found it had jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal had no jurisdiction to entertain an appeal in relation to this aspect of the Tribunal’s decision because, it found, the finding that sufficient time had been afforded was a question of fact, and it had jurisdiction only to hear appeals on a question of law. Nevertheless, the majority ventured some dicta. Continue reading “Procedural fairness: “Murray letters” considered by Victorian Court of Appeal”

A sad story of a failure to qualify as a doctor after 20 years’ effort

Tsigounis v Medical Board of Qld [2006] QCA 295 is a warning of the dangers of self-representation by professionals. A medical student at Monash University took more than 11 years to complete her medical degree 20 years ago. She could not find work in Victoria, and travelled to Townsville to do her internship following a period of limited practice in Greece. It was not a happy internship. After extensions of the internship (involving a requirement of psychiatric counselling) and various ‘show cause’ notices, the Medical Board bit the bullet and refused to register her as a doctor, two years after the first application for registration, satisfied that the intern was incapable of satisfactorily completing an internship. Continue reading “A sad story of a failure to qualify as a doctor after 20 years’ effort”

Colourful barrister runs rings around the Bar’s prosecutor, for a while anyway

Update, August 2006: the end of the saga is to reported at this post. 

Original post: In Victorian Bar v DAP (Nos. 1 to 4) (Bowman, Southall QC, Harper) [2006] VCAT 294, the Bar got itself into a tangle in the prosecution of a barrister for what sounds like the relatively minor offence of taking monies on account of fees in advance without holding a trust account. The complainant refused to give evidence and VCAT refused to arrest him. But it is not only an entertaining series of decisions: Judge Bowman took a firm line in relation to prosecutorial fairness.

Continue reading “Colourful barrister runs rings around the Bar’s prosecutor, for a while anyway”