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”

WASCA on the kind of recklessness in making statements which amounts to conduct warranting discipline

Traditionally, the law of professional discipline has differed from the law of negligence in three profound ways.  First, its aim is the protection of the public (though the policy in favour of protecting the reputation of the profession grossly infects the purity of this proposition in most analyses).  Secondly, it is about personal wrongdoing.  Statute aside, there is no law of attributed liability in contrast to doctrines such as vicarious liability in the law of negligence.  And thirdly, simple as opposed to gross negligence was never considered to warrant discipline.  Things got messed up by the introduction into disciplinary statutes of a concept of unsatisfactory professional conduct defined in terms identical to the test for simple professional negligence.

Disciplinary tribunals (and, in my experience, disciplinary investigators and prosecutors) seem to lapse from time to time into the language of ‘should have known’ even outside the prosecution of that species of unsatisfactory professional conduct which is defined by reference to the test of simple professional negligence.  Two practitioners had to go to two Courts of Appeal to reverse decisions on dishonesty charges which were horribly infected by objective reasoning:  Legal Services Commissioner v Brereton [2011] VSCA 241 and Giudice v Legal Practitioners Complaints Committee [2014] WASCA 115.  Surprisingly, the former decision did not get a guernsey in the latter.  The law of recklessness is authoritatively restated in the three separate judgments in Giudice and I have set the whole lot out below along with some observations about Brereton’s Case. Continue reading “WASCA on the kind of recklessness in making statements which amounts to conduct warranting discipline”

Disciplinary decisions result in res judicatae

So said England’s highest court in R (on the application of Coke-Wallis) v Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales [2011] UKSC 2. An accountant and his wife were directors and shareholders of trust companies carrying out regulated financial services in Jersey.  Jersey is an island off the coast of Normandy which is not part of the United Kingdom but which has a large financial services sector closely associated with England, and 20% flat taxation. A Jersey regulator ordered the accountant to stop what he was doing and directed that no records of the companies be removed from their offices.  Four days later they were arrested at a car ferry with suitcases full of company records, ‘in flagrant breach’, as Lord Collins put it, of the direction, which they were trying to ‘spirit off the island’ as Lord Clarke put it.

Disregard of a direction of the regulator was a crime. They were convicted and fined.  Their appeal was unsuccessful. About a year later, the Investigation Committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales ‘preferred a complaint’ against the accountant.  It was heard in April 2005 and dismissed on the spot. About a year later again, the Committee preferred a second complaint.  The accountant took a preliminary point: the defence of res judicata.  The Institute’s disciplinary committee found that the second complaint was not barred by res judicata.  On review, the trial judge and the Court of Appeal agreed.  The Supreme Court unanimously did not, and kyboshed the second complaint, rewarding the accountant for his stamina. See also the case note by Mayer Brown. (In Victoria, compare Kabourakis v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2005] VSC 493, which I noted here.  It suggests that often, these questions will be determined by statutory interpretation, especially where the disciplinary procedures are set up by statute.)

Continue reading “Disciplinary decisions result in res judicatae”

Can’t keep up

Many new decisions of interest are coming out and I will not have time to blog them any time soon as I have to go to University and concentrate on my latest and hopefully last field of study, Shareholders Rights and Remedies.  Here are some pointers in case you want to read this slew of the new yourself.

Here is a landmark English case on illegally obtained evidence in civil proceedings: Imerman v Tchenguiz [2010] EWCA Civ 908, and CMS Cameron McKenna’s case note.  A husband in business with his wife’s brother separated from his wife.  Worried that he would hide assets from the wife, the brother copied information from the husband’s computer.  The English Court of Appeal refused to admit the evidence.  One of the little changes wrought by the Victorian Evidence Act, 2008 is to make clear that illegally obtained evidence may be inadmissible in civil proceedings as much as in criminal proceedings.

Then there is a mega-solicitor’s negligence decision from NSW’s District Court’s Judge Levy: Mills v Bale [2010] NSWDC 162.  It was a regretted settlement case of the kind I wrote about in ‘Compromise of litigation and lawyers’ liability’ (2002) 10 Torts Law Journal 267.  The client accepted a fraction of his claim on the basis of advice that the other side had ‘damning video evidence’ and that he might get nothing if he went to trial. The solicitor had no file note of the relevant conversation and no recollection of the alleged events. The client won more than $700,000, a rare victory since such cases do not often succeed. The judgment is 807 paragraphs long.  Analysis of the witnesses’ credit occupies 100 paragraphs.

Two from Victoria’s Court of Appeal:

  • First, Justice of Appeal Ashley with whom Acting Justice of Appeal Beach agreed, pronounced the latest chapter in the extraordinary saga of Shaw v Gadens Lawyers, another victory for professional negligence specialist Sam Tatarka.  It has not been published on Austlii, but was delivered on 3 August 2010. The Court confirmed that when VCAT determines civil disputes involving compensation claims, they do not entertain a cause of action created by the Legal Profession Act, 2004.  Rather, they are given a statutory grant to hear professional negligence cases according to common law principles.  Let me know if you want a copy.
  • Secondly, the latest in the saga of Byrne v Marles (see this earlier post about the earlier decision which threw the Legal Services Commissioner’s office into chaos): Byrne v Legal Services Commissioner [2010] VSCA 162.  Mr Byrne successfully sought judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision to characterise a complainant’s complaint as a disciplinary complaint.  The Appealohs held that there was a breach of natural justice in failing to provide an opportunity for the solicitor to be heard on that question.  The Commissioner appears then to have written to every complainant and given them an opportunity to make submissions.  Mr Byrne made submissions, and the Commissioner, unmoved, came to the same decision.  He sought judicial review of that, and that is what this decision is about.  He failed, but along the way, had the former Commissioner re-spanked.  The former Commissioner’s reasons for reaffirming her original classification, absolutely typical of the reasons I have seen her give in a template-like manner, over and over, were described by Justice of Appeal Ashley at [96] as ‘too smart by half. They invited further proceedings’.  In fact, his Honour found at [63] that they were not reasons at all; they were just a statement of the conclusion which the reasons should have supported.

Another decision of the utmost importance to this blog, which again passed me by, is the decision of New Zealand’s Supreme Court (equivalent to our High Court) in Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Committee [2009] 1 NZLR 1; [2008] NZSC 55.  More to come, needless to say.  Meanwhile, You will appreciate my interest in the case when you consider that the Chief Justice opined that disciplinary proceedings making serious allegations should be proved on the criminal standard of proof (remember what Justice Finkelstein said about disciplinary proceedings?), as opposed to the civil burden as explained in Briginshaw v Briginshaw.  Paragraph no. 1 of the Chief Justice’s reasons said: Continue reading “Can’t keep up”

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”

VCAT explores definition of professional misconduct at common law unconnected with legal practice

In Legal Services Commissioner v RAP [2009] VCAT 1200, the Bureau failed to establish a charge of professional misconduct at common law against a solicitor in respect of conduct which occurred otherwise than in the course of, and unconnected with, legal practice.  (Another charge, not the subject of this post, succeeded.) The allegation was that he:

‘deliberately misled a person with whom he had entered into a commercial transaction, thereby behaving in a manner that would reasonably be regarded as disgraceful or dishonourable by fellow practitioners of good repute and competency’.

The solicitor had negotiated in late 2005 with a car dealer for the purchase of a $1.4 million [sic.] car. Continue reading “VCAT explores definition of professional misconduct at common law unconnected with legal practice”

Latest word on burden of proof in professional discipline ‘prosecutions’

In this post, I just reproduce what Deputy President Dwyer said recently about the burden of proof, right to silence, and inferences which may be drawn from the fact of the exercise by a solicitor of the right to silence. He said it in the context of a hard-fought hearing into the conduct of Kylie’s one-time lawyer, Michael Brereton, reported on in the previous post. Interestingly, the Tribunal was not critical of the solicitor’s decision not to give evidence, but asserted that it was free to draw adverse inferences against the solicitor under the rule in Jones v Dunkel, and did so with gusto, drawing support from Woods v Legal Ombudsman [2004] VSCA 247, and Golem v Transport Accident Commission [No2] [2002] VCAT 736.)

What Mr Dwyer said was: Continue reading “Latest word on burden of proof in professional discipline ‘prosecutions’”

Kylie’s one-time lawyer goes down, with a ‘disgraceful and dishonourable’ finding

On 13 August 2008, Deputy President O’Dwyer found charges of misconduct at common law made out against Kylie Minogue’s one-time solicitor, the man towards the centre of the government’s Operation Wickenby investigation, Michael Brereton. See Legal Services Commissioner v Brereton [2008] VCAT 1723. Mr O’Dwyer found he had transferred more than $2.3 million of clients’ money out of his trust account contrary to the trust accounting rules. Since he did not turn up to the hearing, the finding is not altogether surprising. His counsel explained the solicitor ‘was attending to important business matters overseas, having invested in an information technology business with links in America and Europe,’ which makes me wonder whether he could not have used some of his investments to appear by video link. The Age‘s report is here.

The Commissioner is to be commended for making some sense of the very complex business transactions in which the solicitor and his clients were involved, and achieving the making out of the allegations of misconduct which were made out. So too the Tribunal, which had a difficult task in the absence of participation by the solicitor, and produced a spare but careful set of reasons. But it was not all wins for the Commissioner. Continue reading “Kylie’s one-time lawyer goes down, with a ‘disgraceful and dishonourable’ finding”

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”

Lawyer to gangland figures not guilty of alleged crimes

The Crown entered a nolle prosequi on Tuesday on the charges of giving false evidence against Melbourne’s best known female criminal lawyer, Z G-W. In other words, they dropped the charges before trial for want of a reasonable prospect of conviction. The key witness was unable to remember crucial evidence which the Crown obviously figured he would remember. The most interesting fact to emerge from this latest development in the saga is that one of the bits of allegedly false evidence was that spirits had told the solicitor the details of Lewis Caine’s murder. She said that spirits were talking to her. It will be interesting to see what the Legal Practice Board and VCAT make of all this. The solicitor’s VCAT proceeding is a merits review under the VCAT Act, 1998 of the Board’s decision not to renew the solicitor’s practising certificate. Parties to such proceedings may not refuse to answer questions on the basis of the privilege against self-incrimination: ss. 80(3), 105 of the VCAT Act, 1998 which are reproduced below.

I wonder whether anything would stop the Board from calling the solicitor as its own witness and just asking her whether she lied on oath, or, if she were to give evidence, cross-examining her about this. If she did, she would presumably be obliged to say so honestly, though her answers could not be used to prosecute her again, only to inform VCAT in its decision about whether she is a fit and proper person to hold a practising certifiate. In ascertaining whether a person is of good fame and character, or otherwise a fit and proper person to hold a practising certificate, the stipes are entitled to take into account not only criminal convictions but criminal charges, even where the charge resulted in an acquittal: Frugtniet v Board of Examiners [2002] VSC 140, a decision of Justice Pagone. Continue reading “Lawyer to gangland figures not guilty of alleged crimes”

More cases

I only just caught up with the fact that the Court of Appeal has overturned Justice Gillard’s decision in Kabourakis v Medical Board of Victoria [2005] VSC 493, the subject of an earlier post. See [2006] VSC 301.

VCAT’s Vice President Harbison, sitting in the Legal Practice List for the first time I am aware of, has contributed what appears to be a most interesting addition to the authorities about whether solicitors engage in trade and commerce for the purposes of the Fair Trading Act, 1999 (and, by analogy, of the Trade Practices Act, 1974), and whether solicitors may ever be sued under the Fair Trading Act, 1999. As to which, see this earlier post. The decision is Walsh v PJCC&A Pty [2008] VCAT 962 which I will certainly be posting a detailed analysis of.

Then a NSW decision has illustrated again the problem of sloppy regulators failing to consider whether what purports to be a complaint received by them is in fact a complaint as defined by the Act which regulates them (an allegation in both of the cases noted here). This time it was NSW’s Legal Services Commissioner, Steve Mark, getting bashed up by the NSW Administrative Appeals Tribunal’s Legal Services Division in Legal Services Commissioner v SG [2008] NSWADT 48:

’64 As stated, Mr Mark determined that a complaint had been made of deliberate charging of grossly excessive amounts of costs, when no such complaint had been made.

65 Without any further evidence or effort to obtain a valid expert opinion, the LSC instituted the complaint and brought this matter before the Tribunal on the equivocal opinion expressed by Mr McIntyre. Samantha Gulliver investigated the complaint on behalf of Mr Mark, however what, if anything, resulted from such investigation was not placed before the Tribunal. Continue reading “More cases”

Solicitor who blatantly lied to clients for years keeps ticket

Legal Services Commissioner v BH [2008] VCAT 687 is a case with terrible facts. A man died as a result of a crime. The family hired the respondent solicitor to act for them in crimes compensation applications. He lost the file some time into the second year of the retainer, but did not tell his clients. Late in the third year of the retainer, the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal struck out the claims for want of prosecution, but the solicitor hid the fact. Over a period of 6 months beginning a year later during which the 4th anniversary of the retainer fell, the solicitor made up a whole string of complete lies, telling his clients that VOCAT had made offers of compensation, but that they should be rejected, and that they should attend the fictitious trial. The Commissioner urged the suspension or cancellation of the solicitor’s practising certificate, but the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) declined, instead fining him and imposing conditions on his ongoing practice. Continue reading “Solicitor who blatantly lied to clients for years keeps ticket”

NSW Law Society goes down and pays costs in unqualified practice case

In The Law Society of New South Wales v Spring [2007] NSWSC 1273, the Supreme Court of NSW referred to one of the defendants as ‘Lolly Pops’.  Its principal was another defendant, Mr Spring.  He was a retail leases specialist and helped people with retail lease problems, and represented them in statutory tribunals where advocacy was not the preserve of lawyers.  The Law Society sought injunctions against him continuing to do what he does, saying he was engaging in legal practice though unqualified to do so.  Justice Barr found for Lolly Pops, and ordered that the Law Society pay its costs.  This is the case to read if your unqualified practice matter involves non-lawyer advocates in statutory tribunals.

Chinese wall holds up at investment bank

Update, 13 November: Clayton Utz’s take on the case here.

Here’s a long Sydney Morning Herald article about the latest big Chinese wall case, this time not in the context of a law firm, but of Citigroup, an investment bank. Here’s The Age‘s shorter version. The case is ASIC v Citigroup Global Markets Australia Pty Ltd (No. 4) [2007] FCA 963. Here’s a summary by Corrs Chambers Westgarth. Here’s Minter Ellison’s effort. And here’s Allens Arthur Robinsons’ take. The bank’s Chinese wall was declared ok in a 40,000 word long judgment, and his Honour found that Citigroup had successfully contracted out of a fiduciary relationship from the outset, in its retainer letter. But the judge did have this to say about one of the Bank’s key witnesses at [454]ff: Continue reading “Chinese wall holds up at investment bank”

And another Court of Appeal sets aside another gross overcharging conviction

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

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”

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

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

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

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

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”

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”