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

Parliament is considering a bill to re-instate the disciplinary register, and to prohibit the Bureau de Spank from trumpeting its successes before the respondent practitioners’ appeal rights are exhausted: Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Amendment Bill 2016 (Vic.).  Cl. 150E of the Bill proposes to prohibit the Legal Services Board from providing to the public information about disciplinary orders made by the VCAT’s Legal Practice List while appeals or appeal rights are live.  The prohibition extends beyond publication on the proposed disciplinary register to disclosure of information to the public more generally.

There is a problem with the Bill though: it focuses its protection of the profession on prohibitions of publications by the Legal Services Board about final orders.  The Board shares a website and premises with the office of the Legal Services Commissioner.  The CEO of the Board is in fact the Legal Services Commissioner, Michael McGarvie, who is also the applicant in all disciplinary prosecutions of lawyers in Victoria.  Yet the CEO, qua Commissioner, is content for his staff to write about cases he is prosecuting, before any orders have been made and while the tribunal is considering what orders to make.  On the homepage of the Board + Commissioner’s website, no less.

If parliament is concerned to ensure that the reputation of practitioners is not to be ruined by accounts of current proceedings by one of the parties to them where the aspect of things might change dramatically upon appeal, or even by bad decisions in such proceedings which are to be appealed, it ought to consider adding the Commissioner to the class of person covered by the prohibition, and to make clear that neither the Board nor the Commissioner ought publish details of disciplinary prosecutions while they are before the disciplinary tribunal.

It is not uncommon for appellate courts — the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal — to reverse decisions unfavourable to lawyers in disciplinary prosecutions of lawyers in VCAT’s Legal Practice List, or to substitute decisions more favourable to lawyers than those of VCAT or the legal regulators.  So the no publicity pending appeal proposition actually has some important work to do in the real world.  Consider, to name a few, Legal Services Commissioner v McDonald [2015] VSC 237PLP v McGarvie [2014] VSCA 253Stirling v Legal Services Commissioner  [2013] VSCA 374Burgess v Legal Services Commissioner [2013] VSCA 142Brereton v Legal Services Commissioner [2010] VSC 378Byrne v Marles [2008] VSCA 78, Quinn v Law Institute of Victoria [2007] VSCA 122Byrne v Law Institute of Victoria [2005] VSC 509. Consider also non-lawyers: Omant v Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia [2014] VSC 512, and Towie v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2008] VSCA 157 where the Court found that VCAT’s standard orders in disciplinary hearings were contrary to the privilege against penalties.  It will be observed that some of those decisions were made by very experienced members of VCAT’s Legal Practice List, and several by its Vice-President, a judge.

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

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

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

Original post: In Council of the Law Society of NSW v MAG [2016] NSWCATOD 40, a Sydney solicitor was disciplined for writing a private letter of complaint to a Federal Court judge the day after a decision was handed down, adversely to his client in favour of the Tax Man.  The next day he wrote to the trial judge a letter not copied to the other side which commenced:

‘As solicitor for the Applicant in this matter, I have serious concerns about your conduct and decision in this matter. These are:

1. The somewhat immature and inappropriate comments you made to me …’ Continue reading “Solicitor’s correspondence with judge telling him how immature his conduct was doesn’t go down well in disciplinary tribunal”

VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice

I only learnt in the last few years that Melbourne is one of the world’s great Jewish cities, with a globally significant series of communities of orthodox adherents.  One of those orthodox communities has delivered up an interesting case.  In Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] VCAT 439, VCAT’s Acting President recently found a well known Melbourne solicitor guilty of two counts of professional misconduct, constituted by breaches of each limb of r. 30.1.2 of the solicitors’ professional conduct rules.

The rule prohibited conduct calculated to, or likely to a material degree to be, prejudicial to the administration of justice, or to diminish public confidence in the administration of justice, or adversely to prejudice a practitioner’s ability to practise according to these rules.

The practitioner’s disciplinary offence was first to state privately to his client’s father his disappointment after an orthodox Jew sitting watching someone else’s case in court had gone out of his way from the well of the court to assist police in the middle of a bail hearing in a criminal prosecution of the practitioner’s client. His second offence was committed when the man, whom I will refer to as the complainant since he lodged the disciplinary complaint which led to the practitioner’s disciplinary prosecution, rang the practitioner and asked him about comments to similar effect which the man had heard the practitioner had made, taping the call. The practitioner expressed directly to the man similar sentiments, expressly invoking the Jewish principle of ‘mesirah’ by which Jews who cooperated with secular authorities against fellow Jews in times and places where Jews enjoyed imperfect protection were ostracized. Jewish authorities have repeatedly said that the principle has no operation in modern day Australia in relation to criminal matters.

The Age has reported, in an article prominently featuring the practitioner, that victims of Jewish abusers have been pressured not to cooperate with police. It reported the Legal Services Commissioner as saying that ‘there was a general principle that made it impermissible for a lawyer to tell a witness they could not inform police about a matter because of a religious or community rule.’ I do not mean to criticise the Commissioner in this regard, because The Age sought his comments prior to the Commissioner’s receipt of the complaint, and the Commissioner was presumably simply responding to a general question about lawyers’ obligations towards witnesses in their cases. But what VCAT’s decision demonstrates is that the practitioner’s comments occurred after the conduct in question which the practitioner believed to have involved false statements based on misinformation, and were directed to a person who was not a witness and who, as far as the practitioner was aware, was simply someone who stood up in the well of the court and interfered in his client’s case. Given that, as far as the practitioner is said to have known, the man who stood up in court had no further role to play in the case or in his client’s drama more generally, it is hard to see how the practitioner could be said to have intended to pressure the man as a victim of a Jewish abuser not to cooperate further with the police in the future in bringing the abusers to justice, as seems to have been the implication. Continue reading “VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice”

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”

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”

The extended duration of the un-renewed practising certificate

Under the Legal Profession Act 2004, if a lawyer applied for renewal of their practising certificate prior to the expiry of the old one, but a decision was not made before the old one runs out, the certificate is extended until either it is renewed or a decision to refuse renewal is finally determined by the exhaustion of all rights of review of that decision.  No one has ever really known what that meant.  There is a statutory review procedure in VCAT and then there are appeals all the way to the High Court.  Are the appeals from the review ‘a right of review of the decision’?  The Supreme Court has now determined that the certificate endures (if not earlier cancelled or suspended by the stipes) until the end of the High Court appeal.

The question arose in Batrouney v Forster (No 2) [2015] VSC 541, handed down by Justice Robson yesterday (see paras [167] – [193]).  It represents a further embarrassment for the Legal Services Board appointed receivers of David Forster’s practice, Hollows Lawyers, with a savage series of costs orders against the receivers in Mr Forster’s favour.  That followed findings that the receivers’ proceedings were in part misconceived, and that they breached more than one provision of the Civil Procedure Act 2010. The question was at what point did Mr Forster cease to hold a practising certificate and so cease to be entitled to claim costs of acting for himself under the Cachia v Hanes (1994) 179 CLR 403 at 411–413 exception to the rule that self-represented litigants are not entitled to costs for work done by themselves.

The question is a matter of significance to practitioners who get themselves fairly deep into trouble.  It means that those whose practising certificates are not renewed may continue to practice and earn income to put towards the legal costs of challenging that decision, and it also means that such practitioners may brief counsel directly in circumstances where, by virtue of Bar rules about direct access, they might not otherwise be able to.  And of course, it also means that if successful in such proceedings, they will get a costs indemnity against the time spent running their litigation.

Mr Forster is a man with his back to the wall, the subject of an avalanche of litigation brought by professional regulators.  Until recently, he had been singularly unsuccessful and much chastised.  It is probably fair to say that some people in the administration of justice, including the profession, would see him as a pariah.  It ought therefore be of some comfort to those responsible for the justice system that this result has obtained.  It suggests that the cab rank principle is alive and well, that judges are capable of dealing with each case impartially on its merits and according to law without being unduly influenced by past cases, and that the State will not protect itself where the law requires that it be dealt with.

Admissibility of material relevant to penalty at the liability stage

In my experience, the Legal Services Commissioner generally assumes that material relevant to penalty is inadmissible at the liability stage.  So, for example, the Commissioner applied recently for leave to re-cross-examine a practitioner in a disciplinary hearing, after the close of evidence, in order to adduce evidence relevant to penalty by reference to ‘disciplinary priors’, even though the practitioner did not propose to give further evidence.

I knew there was some case which said that under legislation cognate with the Legal Profession Act 2004 there is, in law, just one hearing, but it is one of those many authorities which, despite this blog, got away from me, never to be found again.  But now I have stumbled across it again, and here it is, from Puryer v Legal Services Commissioner [2012] QCA 300, a unanimous decision: Continue reading “Admissibility of material relevant to penalty at the liability stage”

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”

VCAT’s President’s extra-judicial views on Barbaro in VCAT disciplinary hearings

In my last post, I briefly surveyed VCAT’s approach to the Barbaro principle in disciplinary proceedings against solicitors.  I just came across a presentation given by the Supreme Court’s Justice Garde, VCAT’s President which touches on this issue.  The presentation is titled ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution – Can it work for Administrative Law?’. It was given on 26 February 2014, and is linked to here.  The relevant part is: Continue reading “VCAT’s President’s extra-judicial views on Barbaro in VCAT disciplinary hearings”

Submissions on penalty in regulatory proceedings like ASIC and disciplinary prosecutions

The Federal Court has given a landmark decision about regulatory prosecutions.  In federal jurisdictions and state jurisdictions which follow the new decision, professional disciplinarians like ASIC and Legal Services Commissioners will no longer be able to enter into plea bargains in the expectation that the court or tribunal hearing them will rubber stamp the agreed outcomes so long as they are ‘within the permissible range’ of penalties.  But nor will disciplinary prosecutors be able to submit what the appropriate penalty ought to be.  Rather, they will be limited to making submissions about the appropriate sentencing principles, and about similar outcomes in similar cases.

The powerful judgment is at odds with a paragraph of dicta in a recent decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal in that it applies the High Court’s decision in Barbaro, a criminal case, to the quasi-criminal realm.  How the case plays out in Victoria remains to be worked out, but if this case goes to the High Court (and both sides have filed special leave applications), all that may change. Certainly the settlement of proceedings by regulators just got more complicated.

There seems to be a discrepancy about fundamental norms of government between the dicta of our Court of Appeal and the ratio of the Federal Court’s decision.  Once that gets resolved, however, each piece of legislation setting up the regulatory regime must be construed against the backdrop of those fundamental norms, and might give rise to different outcomes.  The Federal Court approached the task of working out how Barbaro applies in regulatory prosecutions in an orthodox fashion, i.e. by a process of statutory construction based on a close textual analysis of the legislative scheme as a whole.

The Chief Justice of the Federal Court allocated three judges to hear a preliminary question in the regulatory prosecution at first instance, in which the parties had already agreed on a proposed outcome, the result of a settlement (or, if you will, a plea bargain).  The proceeding was brought against the CFMEU and the judgment’s aim was apparently to sort out once and for all if, and how, the High Court’s decision in Barbaro is to apply in proceedings for a penalty.  The mouthful of a case is reported as Director, Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate v Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union [2015] FCAFC 59, but seems set to be called ‘the CFMEU Case’.

It’s quite a judgment: indignant, keen to cut cant, and argued from first principles in relation to the place of the courts in civil society.  It is a further step in the demolition of the nonsense about disciplinary proceedings being sui generis, fundamentally distinct from criminal prosecutions, and (oh, spare me!) protective and not punitive in a way which means the protection of those against whom punishment is sought need not be extended.  The   punishment of citizens is, and must be seen to be, a job for the courts (except where parliament has expressly provided otherwise); where the State is seeking to punish citizens the label applied to the proceedings is a distraction; and in such cases, the Courts having been tasked with ascertaining the appropriate penalty, they must do so conscientiously themselves, however convenient it might be for them, for regulators, and for the regulated, to cede that task to a regulator which is part of the machinery of the executive arm of government, and to pay lip service to the inquiry conducted by the Court into the appropriateness of a deal done behind closed doors.  So said the Court.

The indignation extends to the many judges and other decision makers who have convinced themselves post-Barbaro that the decision does not apply  to them, often on the basis that criminal proceedings are special and proceedings for a penalty are civil proceedings and nothing like criminal prosecutions.  Distinguishing Barbaro away has been de jour. Continue reading “Submissions on penalty in regulatory proceedings like ASIC and disciplinary prosecutions”

Summary judgment in a disciplinary prosecution?

I wrote about the test case on the application of penalties privilege to disciplinary prosecutions of solicitors brought by the Legal Services Commissioner here.  Now the Commissioner has made another novel application in the same case, which usefully provides some law on the appropriateness of prosecution applications for summary judgment in disciplinary prosecutions (Legal Services Commissioner v LJS [2015] VCAT 649).  The answer, according to VCAT’s President, Justice Garde?  Not very appropriate, certainly not in this case, despite the complete non-involvement of the respondent solicitor, because: Continue reading “Summary judgment in a disciplinary prosecution?”

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”

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”

Can a legal regulator rescind a decision to bring disciplinary proceedings

The Supreme Court of Tasmania has made an important ruling in  Legal Profession Board of Tasmania v XYZ [2014] TASSC 33 about the finality of decisions made by legal regulators at the end of disciplinary investigations.  The decision suggests that in those jurisdictions with similar statutory provisions, until a disciplinary prosecution is launched, such decisions may be less final than I suspect many lawyers in Australia have previously believed.  A decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal, which related to a different situation where one of two courses following a disciplinary investigation was gone down and completed and the professional regulator sought subsequently to go back down the alternative course, was distinguished: Kabourakis v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2006] VSCA 301. Continue reading “Can a legal regulator rescind a decision to bring disciplinary proceedings”

Can an administrative agency determine that a crime has been committed?

In Australian Communications and Media Authority v Today FM (Sydney) Pty Ltd [2015] HCA 7, the High Court considered when an administrative agency can make a determination of the commission of a crime.  The case arises out of the sorry saga of two Today FM presenters impersonating the Queen and Prince Charles in inquiries of the hospital in which the Duchess of Cambridge was a patient.  ACMA conducted an investigation and published a preliminary report expressing the ‘view’ that Today FM had used its broadcasting service in the commission of an offence under the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NSW).  Commission of an offence in the course of use of a broadcasting service was a breach of the licence and carried with it the possibility of its revocation: s. 8(1)(g) Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005 (Cth). The Court said of ACMA’s ‘view’: No worries; full steam ahead, overturning a unanimous decision of a bench of the Full Federal Court presided over by its Chief Justice, and restoring the trial judge’s conclusions.

There are no doubt implications for Legal Services Commissioners and other disciplinary investigators where misconduct is defined to include the engaging in of criminal offences.  Under the uniform legislation to come into force in Victoria and NSW this year, Legal Services Commissioners will become decision makers and have the power to impose fines for professional misconduct.  I have blogged before about various cases in which a related question has arisen, of the appropriateness of administrative tribunals making determinations of the commission of offences, not with criminal consequences but with penal disciplinary consequences. Continue reading “Can an administrative agency determine that a crime has been committed?”

More on the constraints on the use of information obtained under statutory powers

In Flori v Commissioner of Police [2014] QSC 284, a police sergeant was suspected of committing a crime: leaking to News Ltd footage of an incident in respect of which another officer was being investigated by a disciplinary authority for using excessive force.  A criminal investigation was launched as a result of the findings of the disciplinary investigation.  A search warrant was granted in aid of the criminal investigation, and executed.  The sergeant’s computers were seized from his home.

The evidence was incriminating: the email address used to leak the photos was associated with his computer.  No prosecution ensued.  Instead, disciplinary proceedings were issued.  The prosecutors sought to use the evidence seized in the search warrant.  The policeman sought a declaration that the evidence was inadmissible.  The Supreme Court of Queensland granted the declaration: examining the scheme of the statute which authorised the search warrant, Atkinson J found an implied restraint on the use of the information otherwise than for the purposes of the criminal investigation in aid of which it was granted.

This is an application of established principle (see these previous posts: one, two, three, four), but it is a nice case because its scope is confined exclusively to this issue, and it occurs in the context of a statutory disciplinary regime.  The discussion of the law, which commences at [27], is set out in full below. Continue reading “More on the constraints on the use of information obtained under statutory powers”

New South Wales Law Society misconceivedly suspends sole practitioner’s PC peremptorily

In Dennis v Council of the Law Society of New South Wales [2014] NSWSC 1487, the Law Society suspended a sole practitioner’s practising certificate with immediate effect and appointed a manager to his practice.  He had not responded to commands by a trust investigator to produce documents and answer questions in relation to a disciplinary complaint.  The Society said that he had failed to do so wilfully and without reasonable excuse, and this, it said, made it necessary to abolish the man’s livelihood.

Hoeben CJ at CL found that the commands were invalid in law, and there had been no failure at all to comply with them.  But even if the Society’s interpretation of the provisions of the Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW) in question had been correct so that there had been a failure to comply with them, his Honour said, this would still not have been an appropriate occasion on which to exercise the ’emergency powers’ which the Law Society exercised.  It simply was not ‘necessary’ for the protection of the public to shut down a sole practice like that.  Especially since, prima facie, the appropriate place for the complainant to raise the practitioner’s conduct was in the proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria which were the backdrop to the conduct complained of and which were pending at the time of the complaint.  And more especially still where the practitioner had cited the commercial sensitivity to that litigation of confidential information sought by the Law Society and had suggested that the investigation be paused pending the imminent completion of those proceedings.

Given that the complaint in which the practitioner was said wilfully to have failed to obey the stipes’ commands was the complaint of a non-client, I will be interested to learn what it is about NSW law which means that the solicitor could be obliged to deliver up privileged information even if the commander had the power to issue the commands.  The Victorian Bureau de Spank has no such powers: B v Auckland District Law Society [2003] UKPC 38, a decision of the Privy Council and Legal Services Commissioner v Shulsinger [2010] VCAT 965. Continue reading “New South Wales Law Society misconceivedly suspends sole practitioner’s PC peremptorily”

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”