NZCA stomps on attempt to limit costs against disciplinary bodies

In Roberts v A Professional Committee of the Nursing Council of New Zealand [2014] NZCA 141 a nurse had pleaded guilty to having sex with a vulnerable patient.  He had been suspended from nursing for three years.  The High Court upheld his appeal and reduced his period of suspension to 18 months, precisely as he had requested.  It dismissed the cross-appeal, which contended that he should have been deregistered.  He sought costs.  He got costs of the cross-appeal, fixed at 25% of the costs of the appeal because it had been doomed to fail and should never have been brought.  But he failed in his claim for costs of his own appeal though he had obtained in it precisely what he had sought.

Why? Because there were no ‘compelling reasons’ justifying such an order.  The High Court noted that unlike disciplinary cases against lawyers, where first instance decision makers were empowered to make orders for and against the legal regulator, costs orders could be made only in favour of the nurses’ disciplinarian.  The first-instance immunity to costs of nurses, and the important public function of the maintenance of standards in the provision of healthcare caused the High Court to carve out of quite a prescriptive costs regime in the High Court rules, one of the policies of which is apparently to make costs decisions predictable, a ‘compelling reasons’ threshold.  So he did not get costs of his own appeal.  He appealed again, on costs. The Court of Appeal allowed his appeal, and found there was no ‘compelling reasons’ threshold to be overcome before costs could be awarded against disciplinary regulators.  The judges unanimously said: Continue reading “NZCA stomps on attempt to limit costs against disciplinary bodies”

A reprimand is not just a slap over the wrist; the value of precedents in disciplinary sentencing

In Peeke v Medical Board of Victoria [1994] VicSC 7 at p. 6, Marks J commented in a judgment substituting a reprimand for the inferior tribunal’s 6 month suspension that a reprimand should not be regarded as a trivial penalty:

‘I have mentioned that the Board referred to a reprimand as trivialising a serious lapse in professional standards.  I am not able to agree with the Board that a reprimand is a trivial penalty.  It may be inappropriate or inadequate in many circumstances, but a reprimand, to a professional person, has the potential for serious adverse implications.’ Continue reading “A reprimand is not just a slap over the wrist; the value of precedents in disciplinary sentencing”

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.’

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.


Commissioner’s unexplained delay reduces penalty for serious misconduct

Speaking of the need for speed as Justice Heydon and I were on this blog yesterday, there are two other instances worthy of reporting.

First, the High Court has recently considered the need for speed in criminal proceedings, and were not nearly as excited about it as in commercial litigation. This time, they rolled the court below for saying that enough delay was enough and staying a criminal prosecution that had hung around for too long, resulting in the loss of exculpatory evidence.  The decision in R v Edwards [2009] HCA 20 might have application by analogy in disciplinary cases. It is blogged about at Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes, and there is a short note in the latest Law Institute Journal.

Secondly, delay by the Legal Services Commissioner has had a consequence in a serious disciplinary prosecution.  Parliament requires the Bureau de Spank to conduct their investigations ‘as expeditiously as possible’, and to give the complainant progress reports at least 6 monthly: s. 4.4.12, Legal Profession Act, 2004.  If the Commissioner complies with these injunctions, the degree of expedition which is possible is not always great.  In fact, sometimes the rate at which investigations progress is astonishing.  So glacial can progress be that the possibility that climate change sceptics might actually have some kernel of truth buried away beneath all of their hot air (-not) begins to nag at you.  There is a letter in the latest Law Institute Journal complaining about the Commissioner’s April 2009 response to a solicitor’s September 2008 letter (August 2009, p. 10).

An unexplained period of apparent inactivity of 18 months was taken into account in favour of the lawyer prosecuted for misconduct in Legal Services Commissioner v ER [2009] VCAT 1445.  This is a factor which might be brought to bear in many a plea in a disciplinary prosecution.  What Judge Ross’s tribunal said on this issue is: Continue reading “Commissioner’s unexplained delay reduces penalty for serious misconduct”

The practising certificate suspension challenge that went wrong

Update, 8 November 2008: When I wrote this post, the Court of Appeal had authoritatively answered another of the questions posed below, about the penalty privileges, but I had not yet read the case, CT v Medical Practitioners Board [2008] VSCA 157.  Now I have, and I have posted here about it.

Original post: WPE v Law Institute of Victoria [2008] VCAT 1277 shows that you’ve got to be careful when challenging a decision to cancel or suspend your practising certificate because if the Law Institute wants to sic you, they can seek to establish misconduct against you in the merits review proceedings, and if they get up, VCAT has the same suite of powers as it would following a disciplinary prosecution: s. 2.4.37(3) Legal Profession Act, 2004.

Sometimes, rather than engage in litigation, it is better to play the game, take an early long service leave, help some orphans, have a moment on the road to Damascus, and send in a well thought out application for a new certificate at a well judged time in the future. Saves a lot of costs and maybe a few orphans,  lets you have a holiday at the same time, and means there’s never a hearing into the conduct which gave rise to the suspension and/or cancellation. Spend half the money you would have spent on lawyers on a public relations consultant and a lobbyist and you’re doing even better. Other times it’s better to avoid merits review — the obvious remedy specifically provided for in the Legal Profession Act, 2004 — and go for judicial review proper (a course which we now know since Zarah G-W’s cases is kosher; c.f. Perkins v Victorian Bar Inc [2007] VSC 70), especially where the decision making process leading up to the suspension or cancellation is dubious.  But sometimes, if a disciplinary charge seems imminent, the question of costs referred to below might recommend getting in early with an application for review of a practising certificate decision which might prevent the laying of disciplinary proceedings proper and lead to adjudication of the issues in a more costs friendly regime.  There is much to weigh up in choosing one’s approach when challenging a practising certificate decision.

How these hybrid administrative law and quasi-criminal proceedings are supposed to pan out has been a bit of a mystery to date.  They are a new concept.  Maybe they are unique — who knows?  Anyway, there was certainly no analogue under the Legal Practice Act, 1996.  Who bears the burden of proof?  Who should go first?  Does the privilege against penalties protect the lawyer?  Is it an inquisitorial or adversarial proceeding?  Should the matters the Law Institute will argue should found disciplinary findings be the subject of properly particularised charges?  What about costs?  Can the Law Institute apply for disciplinary findings at all, or is it a jurisdiction which must be invoked by VCAT?  Judge Ross provided answers to a couple of these questions only in this case. Continue reading “The practising certificate suspension challenge that went wrong”

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”

Morwell solicitor to pay $5,500 for ignoring Bureau de Spank

A Morwell solicitor has been ordered to pay a fine of $3,000 and costs of almost $2,500 for ignoring the Legal Services Commissioner’s demands under the Legal Profession Act, 2004 power resident in her to compel written explanations of conduct the subject of a complaint and to compel the production of documents — in this case, the file in relation to the matter which was the subject of the complaint. The case is Legal Services Commissioner v NT [2007] VCAT 1987. I was down at the Tribunal that day for a matter in which I was briefed in the Legal Practice List. When that was over, I popped in to watch this matter at random. The solicitor had not showed up, and the advocate was leading a winsome witness from the Commissioner’s office through her evidence. Turns out that the advocate was a staff member of the Commissioner’s office. The Commissioner is absolutely to be commended for keeping costs down in this way. If the police can prosecute complex crimes in the Magistrates’ Court, there is no reason why the Bureau should not have an in-house advocate — or a member of the Bar on retainer — to do simple prosecutions. How the costs of $2,500 odd were arrived at is a different and interesting question, but I cannot comment on that since it does not appear from the reasons. Continue reading “Morwell solicitor to pay $5,500 for ignoring Bureau de Spank”

Leading, senior and respected solicitor convicted over $0.75M fraud suspended till 2013

In Legal Services Commissioner v. RDS [2007] VCAT 1835, a ‘leading, senior and respected member of the profession’ defrauded both his client and the revenue of three quarters of a million dollars.  He had been sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment, suspended for 3 years, having pleaded guilty in the criminal court.  He cooperated with the authorities, voluntarily handed in his practising certificate, pleaded guilty to misconduct at common law in the charge brought in VCAT by the Legal Services Commissioner, and conceded through his counsel that a substantial period of suspension from practice was warranted. He paid the revenue the money after he was caught. His daughter was ill at the time of the offence. Apparently he has given a  lot of money to charity.  Much was made of this.  Perhaps too much; the sentencing remarks as hagiography form of literature sometimes makes me uneasy. Maybe society’s denunciation of this crime took place in the sentencing remarks of the judge in the criminal case, but there was little by way of denunciation in these reasons. Anyway, the solicitor’s practising certificate was suspended until mid-2013, justified by general deterrence since the solicitor was in Israel, contemplating relocation there and not intending to practise again. A Full Tribunal with Judge Bowman presiding said at [14]:

‘Whether or not [the solicitor] is likely to offend again, and we would be of the view that he is highly unlikely so to do, principles of general deterrence must be borne in mind. There is also the question of the damage that is done to the standing and reputation of the legal profession in the eyes of the public if someone who could be described as a leading, senior and experienced member of the profession engages in fraudulent activity of this kind.’

It seems this was a plea, that there was no contest and full cooperation. The hearing could not have gone longer than an hour or two. It is interesting then that the Commissioner was awarded costs of almost $6,000.

Costs ordered against Law Institute in unsuccessful opposition to appeal against sentence of solicitor

The last post referred to part 1 of the last chapter of an intriguing saga. The second and final part of that chapter is the decision on costs: PJQ v Law Institute of Victoria (No. 2) [2007] VSCA 132. The President of the Court of Appeal rejected the following submissions by the Institute:

  • that the Institute was just a contradictor, assisting the Court by ensuring that it had two views to choose from, and was akin to an amicus curiae;
  • that it would have been entirely inappropriate for a professional regulator such as the Institute to consent to the relief sought by the appeal;
  • that the cases which say that ‘costs ought not to be awarded against a statutory tribunal which makes an order in excess of its powers unless it can be demonstrated that the tribunal has been guilty of serious misconduct or corruption or has acted perversely’ are relevant (‘this submission is entirely misconceived. The Institute is not a tribunal. Rather, it appears before the Tribunal as a party. Its function is that of prosecutor. No question arises here of the Tribunal’s costs, since the Tribunal did not appear.’);
  • it was relevant that parliament had directed that costs of the Full Tribunal hearing were not to be awarded against the Institute save in exceptional circumstances (s. 162, Legal Practice Act, 1996; see now Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998, Sch 1 cl 46D(3));
  • because it made no submissions as to penalty, the Institute did not lead the Tribunal into error. Continue reading “Costs ordered against Law Institute in unsuccessful opposition to appeal against sentence of solicitor”

The barrister and the trust monies saga ends in 6 month holiday

Update: 14 October 2007  The Court of Appeal refused leave to appeal, and the High Court refused special leave to appeal too, on 5 October 2007.

In Victorian Bar Inc v DAP, [2006] VCAT 2293 Judge Bowman, Tony Southall QC and T Harper suspended the barrister’s practising certificate for 6 months and ordered him to pay costs. He had been found guilty of misconduct constituted by breach of a prohibition in the Legal Practice Act, 1996 on barristers receiving trust monies (otherwise than through their clerks) (s. 178). Breach of the provision was also amenable of being prosecuted as a crime, punishable by up to 2 years’ imprisonment. That that was so was considered to be a measure of the seriousness with which Parliament viewed the offence. Continue reading “The barrister and the trust monies saga ends in 6 month holiday”

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”

Open offer under cover of denial of negligence averts hearing

Chen’s Case [2006] VCAT 748 (Senior Member Howell): costs; s. 132(b); s. 133(2); s. 407 (see the associated disciplinary decision here)

A solicitor averted being found negligent by openly offering to pay the claimant the maximum amount VCAT could award under cover of a denial of negligence. Mr Howell found that it would not be “fair” to put the solicitor through a hearing only to determine negligence. Continue reading “Open offer under cover of denial of negligence averts hearing”

Costs of prosecutor’s in-house lawyers

Law Institute of Victoria v SA [2006] VCAT 742

A solicitor’s prima facie sound argument — that the indemnity principle at the heart of the common law’s costs jurisprudence meant that the Law Institute should not be entitled to its in-house solicitor’s costs of the prosecution — failed. The reason: because the LIV was engaging in a statutory duty. Continue reading “Costs of prosecutor’s in-house lawyers”

3 years’ holiday for not making ongoing discovery

Guss v Law Institute of Victoria Ltd [2006] VSCA 88 (Maxwell P gave the lead judgment, Callaway and Chernov JJA agreeing)

A solicitor’s right to practice was suspended for three years and he was ordered to pay costs of $31,500 for failing to comply with the obligation of ongoing discovery in relation to what was prima facie a privileged copy of a document produced by an expert witness a few days before trial which, had the existence of the copy document been disclosed to the other side, might have put the other side onto a train of enquiry which might have led to relevant evidence. Continue reading “3 years’ holiday for not making ongoing discovery”

Non-disclosure of own negligence founds unsatisfactory conduct conviction

Law Institute of Victoria v PJR [2006] VCAT 293 (see the associated pecuniary loss dispute decision here)

The Law Institute prosecuted a solicitor for misconduct constituted by simply missing a time limit. That failed, as did most of the other charges. But he was convicted of unsatisfactory conduct in not telling his client for two years that he had missed a crucial time limit, giving rise to a conflict between duty and self-interest. After 3 days of hearings, the solicitor was fined $1,000 and ordered to contribute only a fraction of the Law Insitute’s costs.

Continue reading “Non-disclosure of own negligence founds unsatisfactory conduct conviction”

Demand for information “within 14 days” complies with s. 149

Law Institute of Victoria v MMM [2006] VCAT 182

Section 149(3) of the Legal Practice Act, 1996 says that a demand by the Law Institute under the power to compel information and documents must be in writing and “must allow at least 14 days to comply”. In a marvellously ambitious move, Rod Randall unsuccessfully challenged the Tribunal’s jurisdiction on the basis that a demand for information “within 14 days” did not allow his client at least 14 days to comply.

Continue reading “Demand for information “within 14 days” complies with s. 149″