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.
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“VCAT may make orders of a transitional nature” read down

K v Legal Services Board [2006] VCAT 2303; K v Legal Services Board No. 2 [2006] VCAT 2362 (Bowman J)

A solicitor lied to a County Court judge about holding a practising certificate and was told in 2001 by the Full Legal Profession Tribunal not to bother applying for a practising certificate until 2011 and only if he had complied with two previous orders of the Tribunal. It ordered the solicitor to be referred to the Supreme Court with a recommendation that his name be struck off the roll of practitioners. The Law Institute duly applied to the Supreme Court declined to strike him off, finding that inadequate notice of the Tribunal hearing had been given to the solicitor. The solicitor did not then appeal the Full Tribunal’s order. Three and a half years later, the solicitor applied under s. 2.4.9 of the Legal Profession Act, 2004 for a practising certificate, by which time the Legal Practice Act, 1996 had been repealed and the Legal Profession Tribunal abolished. He said the Supreme Court had ruled that the Full Legal Profession Tribunal’s decision had been defective, and as the successor to that Tribunal, VCAT must be able to “remedy” the Full Legal Profession Tribunal’s defective decision. Bowman disagreed, suggesting that the only remedy available to the solicitor might be to use “the provisions of the Interpretation of Legislation Act, 1984 in relation to repealed legislation” to bring an appeal under the now-repealed Legal Practice Act, 1996 (as to which, see below). Continue reading ““VCAT may make orders of a transitional nature” read down”

Western Australia’s Bleak House Case is a Prosecutorial Flop

Legal Practitioners Complaints Committee v B&M [2005] WASAT 217

No doubt Dickens’s Bleak House is being dusted off in many a household glued of a Sunday evening to the BBC’s new dramatisation which finished in Australia yesterday. In it, lawyers squabble over a disputed estate in the courts of Chancery in the matter of Jarndyce v Jarndyce for generations until a new copy of the will is found which determines all issues, just as the estate is reduced to nothing by lawyers’ fees.  Life imitates art a little bit in this case of an estate whose administration took almost 50 years because of the transposition in the will of the Christian and middle names of a beneficiary — except that the respondent lawyers did not suffer any penalty for tardiness, and certainly did not take a bullet through the heart like Tulkinghorn. The last 15 years of the estate’s administration gave rise to disciplinary charges which seem to have been based on the curious proposition that if partners ignorant about the mysterious world of probate law had been involved, the former partner’s stroke of genius in working out what had happened would have come about a lot sooner. I say curious because the employee solicitor and former partner seems to have been acknowledged by everyone as having had a very long experience of almost exclusively complex probate work. Continue reading “Western Australia’s Bleak House Case is a Prosecutorial Flop”

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.

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Justice Gillard gives the Law Institute a bloody belting

SPB v Law Institute of Victoria [2005] VSC 509 (Gillard J, 12 December 2005) s. 151(3)(c)

Solicitors who read the back pages of the RPA News (dubbed the “sports pages”) well know the schadenfreude associated with the decisions of professional regulators. Rarely does one have such an enhanced opportunity for guilty pleasure in the public excoriation of a regulator as in this decision, however. His Honour railed especially about the adverse finding made on the papers without interviewing the former client or having her confirm her allegations by statutory declaration.

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A duty not to tempt witnesses to breach likely confidentiality obligations?

Update, 22 December 2009: I came across this article recently: ‘Using Information: Witnesses Under Obligations of Confidence’ (2002) 22(11) Proctor 16.

Original post:

AG Australia Holdings Ltd v Burton (2002) 58 NSWLR 464; Bernard Murphy “Witnesses and Confidential Information” Litigation Lawyers’ Section Newsletter, March 2006

Melbourne class action litigator Bernard Murphy was found by the NSW Supreme Court to have engaged in the tort of inducing breach of contract by acting with a reckless disregard as to whether asking questions of a “smoking gun” ex-employee witness was likely to involve a breach of the witness’s confidentiality obligations to GIO. [Update, Jan 2007: compare this case.]
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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.

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