Victorian Legal Services Commissioner’s 2006-2007 annual report

The Legal Services Commissioner’s annual report went online today. You can download the pdf by clicking here. The big news is that she’s put 2 new blokes on the staff, but the blokes to sheila ratio has actually decreased (to 1 in 20).

In the year to 30 June 2007, the Commissioner’s staff of 45 (including 6 part-timers) closed 2550 files. At the end of the disciplinary complaint process, the Commissioner has to decide whether the complaint is made out, unless it was summarily dismissed earlier. The test is whether VCAT would be reasonably likely to find a practitioner guilty of professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct. 5,089 enquiries gave rise to 1,487 disciplinary complaints, yielding a single instance where the Commissioner thought it was reasonably likely that VCAT would find the practitioner guilty of misconduct, and that was the matter reported in my previous post in which the barrister made a full confession from the outset of the investigation. The three other misconduct prosecutions were for failure to cooperate with the Commissioner’s investigations.

The 1,487 disciplinary complaints also yielded 64 instances where the Commissioner thought it was reasonably likely that VCAT would find the practitioner guilty of the lesser disciplinary offence of unsatisfactory conduct. She has a discretion whether to prosecute in these instances. She exercised that discretion in favour of laying charges just once, when some scamp attempted to charge for storage or retrieval of documents without a written agreement by the client. So 2 charges were laid as a result of the 5,089 enquiries. Additionally, 3 charges were laid because of non-cooperation with investigations. And 28 slaps over the wrist were privately inflicted in the form of reprimands and cautions. So: pity the professional discipline Bar, all hail to an unprecedentedly well behaved profession, and shame on the great unwashed for making all those hurtful allegations which went nowhere and cost the revenue $7 million. Continue reading “Victorian Legal Services Commissioner’s 2006-2007 annual report”

Withdrawing complaints under the Legal Profession Act, 2004

In the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner’s 2006-2007 annual report, she makes the following points about withdrawing complaints under the Legal Profession Act, 2004:

  • civil complaints and disciplinary complaints alike may be withdrawn;
  • if a civil complaint which is characterised as a costs dispute is withdrawn, any costs paid into trust at the outset must be paid to the lawyer;
  • if a disciplinary complaint is withdrawn, the Commissioner may nonetheless continue to investigate the conduct of the lawyer.

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.

Pizer’s Annotated VCAT Act comes into third edition

        

My friend Jason Pizer had the launch of the third edition of his book this week, and I went along and enjoyed the company of VCAT’s Acting President John Bowman, Deputy President Marilyn Harbison, and Justice Chris Maxwell, President of the Court of Appeal.  It’s the VCAT equivalent of Williams, the looseleaf ‘Bible’ of civil procedure in the state courts.  Compared with Williams, it is a joy to use. It has the same in-court handling as the ‘Cook Book’. It has serious traction with the members over there. It’s full of intellectual grunt. And it’s about one-tenth of the price of Williams at $130. Continue reading “Pizer’s Annotated VCAT Act comes into third edition”

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”

What does “VCAT’s not a court of pleadings” actually mean?

In Dalton v Silberberg [2007] VCAT 1069, Deputy President Steel laid down the law in relation to the minimum standards for pleadings by unrepresented applicants in VCAT cases other than simple one-hour hearing cases, and struck out the applicant’s points of claim. The decision is also worth reading to ascertain VCAT’s Civil List’s attitude to how much vexation is necessary before dismissal becomes the appropriate course as opposed to the striking out of the statement of the applicant’s claim. The Deputy President adopted what the Supreme Court said in another case about pleadings in Tribunals:

‘a defendant is entitled to expect that a claim will be laid out with a degree of specificity such that, if it is obvious that the claimant seeks to pursue a claim which is untenable, that can be the subject of an application before trial’. Continue reading “What does “VCAT’s not a court of pleadings” actually mean?”

Doctor’s opinion not given in trade or commerce so VCAT had no jurisdiction

In a landmark decision with profound implications for VCAT’s Fair Trading Act, 1958 jurisdiction over lawyer-client disputes about professional negligence and fees, a Deputy President of VCAT has recognised that it did not have jurisdiction to hear a former client’s misleading and deceptive conduct claim brought against ‘a professional’ in the traditional sense of the word, in relation to professional advice. The claim was brought under s. 9 of the Fair Trading Act, 1958 (the state analogue of s. 52 of the Trade Practices Act, 1974), which says:

“(1) A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive”.

The case is Stagliano v Duke [2007] VCAT 1070. The applicant was injured at work, and made a Workcover claim. His employer’s Workcover insurers had him examined. The doctor wrote a report and sent it to the insurer. That professional opinion was not given in trade or commerce, even though it was given pursuant to a contract with the insurer, and for a fee, Deputy President Steel held, for the following reasons: Continue reading “Doctor’s opinion not given in trade or commerce so VCAT had no jurisdiction”

Confirmed: your client can privately prosecute you for misconduct

Acting President Bowman handed down a decision on Friday in Cedric Naylor’s Case [2007] VCAT 958 approving the existing practice of VCAT, and before it the Legal Profession Tribunal, of entertaining professional misconduct allegations against lawyers by their clients as part of applications to set aside costs agreements. Entertaining them, that is, outside the disciplinary investigation and prosecution procedures in Part 5 of the old Legal Practice Act, 1996, and regardless of whether those who otherwise prosecute disciplinary charges would have brought a charge.  Under the old Act, a costs agreement could be set aside upon proof by the client of (i) dishonesty in the solicitor, or (ii) misconduct or unprofessional conduct in the retainer, or (iii) a want of fairness and reasonableness of the agreement. Judge Bowman  ruled that it was not necessary for the solicitor to be found guilty of misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct in the ordinary way, by a prosecution by a legal regulator under the disciplinary provisionso of the Act before the client could rely on the second ground, but he did say that if misconduct is made out in an old Act case, then no disciplinary consequences such as a suspension of a practising certificate can follow in that hearing.  But, armed with the result in the s. 103 application, there seems to be nothing to stop the client sending the reasons in to the regulator and requesting investigation of the conduct already determined to be misconduct by the body which would hear any charge flowing from the investigation. And so, of course, there seems to be nothing to stop the client from threatening to do so in little spats over fees.

Continue reading “Confirmed: your client can privately prosecute you for misconduct”

Judge Bowman explains Murray’s Case

VCAT’s Acting President Judge Bowman today handed down a long and important decision in relation to the relationship between alleged failures to follow the procedures for investigating complaints against professionals laid down by legislation and the jurisdiction of the disciplinary tribunal to hear charges laid as a result of such investigations. After eight months’ thought, his Honour decided that VCAT did have jurisdiction in the matter of Law Institute of Victoria Ltd v IAB [2007] VCAT 808, and that anything which could have been done better by the Law Institute were not productive of such unfairness as to invalidate the charge laid in the tribunal. In the course of doing so, he provided this summary of the leading case on point, Murray v Legal Services Commissioner (1999) 46 NSWR 224:

Continue reading “Judge Bowman explains Murray’s Case”

Misconduct charge no. 21 against Victorian silk stayed as abuse of process

The latest and possibly last chapter in the tribulations of Victoria’s most senior female silk is to be found in M v VCAT [2007] VSC 89, a decision of Justice Mandie. The barrister was charged on 4 July 2005 with 24 charges of misconduct, and ended up after a hearing of the first half of the charges with a finding of only 4 counts of unsatisfactory conduct. All but one of the second half were abandoned, but the Bar, as prosecutor, sought to amend the last remaining charge so as to substitute an allegation of unsatisfactory conduct for the original charge of misconduct. VCAT found it had no power to grant leave to amend a charge, and the barrister convinced the Supreme Court to stay the hearing of the last charge as an abuse of process, VCAT having refused to do so. It was an abuse because the Bar wished to proceed with the misconduct charge not so as to make out an allegation of misconduct, but so as to provide a vehicle for a finding of unsatisfactory conduct under a statutory power which empowered VCAT to make a finding of unsatisfactory conduct after hearing a misconduct charge. Justice Mandie found:

‘[58] … It would bring the administration of justice into disrepute to permit the Bar to prosecute a charge of misconduct while at the same time saying the opposite, namely, that it was not advancing a case of misconduct or seeking a finding of misconduct. It is an entirely different position to that which might have arisen had the charge been proceeded with and, after all the evidence was in, the Bar conceded that the evidence supported only a lesser charge [i.e. unsatisfactory conduct]. The use of a misconduct charge simply to obtain a finding of a lesser charge when the case for misconduct is completely disavowed before the hearing commences is, I think, a misuse of the statutory procedure and, indeed, as the plaintiff submitted, contrary to the spirit of the Act, given the requirement that the Bar be satisfied when bringing the charge that there is a reasonable likelihood that the Tribunal would find the practitioner guilty of misconduct. If the Bar has reached the view, as it has, that a case of misconduct cannot be made out and it does not seek to do so, such a charge ought not as a matter of justice and fairness be heard.’ Continue reading “Misconduct charge no. 21 against Victorian silk stayed as abuse of process”

VCAT’s jurisdiction over post-proceedings Family Law fees

Senior Member Howell determined today in M v JC Lawyers [2007] VCAT 273 that VCAT had jurisdiction to entertain a costs dispute about solicitor-client fees of post-proceedings negotiations under the threat of mutual applications to reopen under the change of circumstances provisions the final orders of the Family Court made 9 years previously. Continue reading “VCAT’s jurisdiction over post-proceedings Family Law fees”

Staying disciplinary proceedings as abuses of process

Update, 23 December 2009: Doubt is cast on the correctness of Hunt AJA’s comments by Hodgson JA, the other justices of appeal agreeing, in Council of the NSW Bar Association v A (2008) 72 NSWLR 236 at 249; [2008] NSWCA 164 ([40]).

Original post: The following passage from the NSW Court of Appeal’s decision in Lindsay v Health Care Complaints Commission [2005] NSWCA 356 (Hunt AJA, others agreeing) casts some doubt on whether a medical disciplinary tribunal presided over by a judge had power to stay a disciplinary proceeding as an abuse of process. The issue arose in the context of which the legislation provided that “The members of the Tribunal are to conduct an inquiry into any complaint … referred to it”, and then, later “It is the duty of a Committee and the Tribunal to hear inquiries and appeals under this Act and to determine those inquiries and appeals expeditiously.” As the Court noted, “Both provisions express the obligation of the Tribunal to exercise that jurisdiction in unusually mandatory terms”. Continue reading “Staying disciplinary proceedings as abuses of process”

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”

Chairman, Full Legal Profession Tribunal criticised for abusing solicitor in misconduct prosecution

In B (A Solicitor) v Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd (2002) 6 VR 642 (Ormiston, Charles and Batt JJA), the majority criticised the Chairman of the Full Legal Profession Tribunal for retorting to the solicitor’s submission that “These proceedings are a full time occupation for me” with “Occupation or obsession, Mr [G]?”. They said it was taken, with some justification, as a term of abuse. But they found that, and some other comments, raised no case of apparent bias such that the Chairman should have excused himself. But the majority said at [62] that: Continue reading “Chairman, Full Legal Profession Tribunal criticised for abusing solicitor in misconduct prosecution”

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”

The great delegation debacle: B (A solicitor) v Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd

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

The Law Institute of Victoria Limited used to be named Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd. It, and the Victorian Bar, were the only two RPAs (Recognised Professional Associations) set up under the Legal Practice Act, 1996, which allowed for an unlimited number of RPAs. Under s. 313 of that Act, it was entitled to delegate in writing powers and functions to employees. If it did not do so, its board (styled “the Council”) would have had to make every decision.

The Law Institute charged two solicitors with misconduct. Six months later, it sought leave to withdrew the charges, on the basis that its “failure to follow strict process” had resulted in the charge laid being a nullity. The Tribunal allowed the Law Institute to do so, refused to dismiss the charges, and refused to order costs.

The Law Institute’s Council minuted a recommendation that its powers under s. 151, the provision requiring the RPA to take certain courses at the end of a disciplinary investigation, and giving it certain discretions, be delegated to its CEO, Ian Dunn. At the end of the minutes, the word “confirmed” was typed, and they were signed by the Chair.

Pursuant to s. 151, Dunn signed new charges against the same solicitors, purportedly as delegate of the Law Institute. The Court of Appeal found that the Legal Profession Tribunal had erred in finding it had jurisdiction. It found that a written minute of an oral recommendation to delegate a power was not a written instrument of delegation. Because the person who signed the charge had no authority to do so, the Tribunal’s jurisdiction was not properly invoked, and it had no jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal ordered the charges dismissed.

For the peak lawyers’ body in the State practising under the business name “Professional Standards” it was an embarrassing lapse which threw the world of professional discipline into chaos for months (Ormiston JA observed at [3] that he found it “surprising that a body made up of qualified and experienced lawyers should take a course as was here adopted without there having been some explicit authority which would justify their actions”.) Because the procedural defect did not apply only to the particular delegation in question, huge numbers of decisions stood amenable of being set aside, or ignored (since an order made by a statutory Tribunal without jurisdiction need not be obeyed). Urgent retrospective legislation had to be rushed through parliament.

The architects of this most exquisitely technical of victories were Terry O’Conner and barristers he retained, Rod Garrett QC and Bob Miller.
Continue reading “The great delegation debacle: B (A solicitor) v Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd”

Roisin Annesley’s Victorian Barristers’ practice guide

The Bar has produced a practice guide. It is a great achievement and stands as a beacon for the Law Institute’s future efforts at promulgating knowledge of the practice rules. The Bar actually has something called the Professional Standards Education Committee. Written by Roisin Annesley, it was launched by Victoria Marles, the Legal Services Commissioner on 18 October 2006, and distributed free to every member of the Bar. Annesley has done a lot of work as Counsel Assisting the Legal Profession Tribunal (and continues to do occasional work assisting the Legal Practice List at VCAT). A doyen of professional discipline, Paul Lacava SC, and a judge who has excoriated Professional Standards, Justice Gillard, are credited with substantial involvement. It has chapters on: Continue reading “Roisin Annesley’s Victorian Barristers’ practice guide”

Excellent paper on lawyers’ discipline by Stitt QC and Lindsay SC

The New South Wales Law Society distinguishes itself amongst the Australian law societies with its in depth ethics resources. The Bar Association too is good in that regard in that state. Here is an excellent paper by R.R. Stitt QC and G.C. Lindsay SC entitled “Disciplinary Proceedings Affecting Barristers”. It’s a bit old now (June 1997, revised January 1999) but, really, not much changes in the world of professional discipline. I now acknowledge this paper as a source of various future posts. There is a Victorian equivalent, by Dr Ian Freckleton (available here until 1 February 2007, filed under 5 April 2006).

Leave granted retrospectively to file charge out of time against barrister for 1999 conduct

New South Wales Bar Association v LI (No 2) [2006] NSWADT 263

Some of the allegedly agro behaviour of a now-78-year-old barrister at an arbitration which commenced on 19 December 1999 was not appreciated and resulted in a disciplinary complaint in May 2000. In mid-2003, a charge was finally laid by the NSW Bar Association. There had been changes of personnel at the Bar Association, and 5 months of absolute inactivity while they were distracted by another matter.
The Bar Assocation did not comply with a time limit for filing the charge after having become satisfied that the Administrative Decisions Tribunal would be likely to find unsatisfactory conduct. Their solicitor was ignorant of the limitation period, and they had become used to being granted leave retrospectively as a matter of course to file out of time. The barrister had made certain admissions towards acknowledging that his conduct amounted to unsatisfactory conduct. There had been protracted negotiations towards an agreed outcome involving a private reprimand and some form of counselling. But the barrister ultimately declined to be compelled to engage in psychotherapy. The NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal ultimately granted the Bar Association’s application for retrospective leave to file the charge about 6 months late. Continue reading “Leave granted retrospectively to file charge out of time against barrister for 1999 conduct”