The permissible forensic uses of historical mental illness in professional discipline trials

Professor Dal Pont’s excellent text Lawyers’ Professional Responsibility (5th ed., 2013) suggests at [23.145] that mental illness will rarely provide a defence to a disciplinary prosecution, the purpose of which is protective rather than punitive.  He argues, in part, that the public needs protection just as much from the mentally ill who do bad things as from the mentally flourishing who do wrong.  But that reasoning does not have any application where there is not a temporal proximity between the moment of determining liability and the moment at which the putative wrongdoing occurred. In my experience the glacial pace of disciplinary investigations usually mean that the time for setting sanctions is years after the conduct in question.  Very often, I find myself acting for practitioners whose minds are flourishing much more than at the time of their wrongdoing.

I always thought (or perhaps more accurately, hoped) that Dal Pont was a little pessimistic about the possibility of mental impairment being relevant to the determination of the question of whether unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct is.  True, there are some decisions broad statements in which support that position, but the authorities are a bit all over the place, and there are so many different kinds of conduct warranting discipline and so many fact scenarios that it seemed to me that the law must be more nuanced than some of those broad statements suggested.

Last year, VCAT’s Legal Practice List last year ruled, contrary to the position advanced by Victoria’s Legal Services Commissioner, that evidence of mental impairment was relevant to the question of whether conduct was professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct, and heard evidence from a psychologist during the liability phase of the hearing.  The two species of conduct warranting discipline arising from a breach of the rules have traditionally been delineated by enquiring whether the breach was innocent or whether it was deliberate or reckless, so that it clearly incorporates a subjective enquiry. VCAT’s decision to hear the psychological evidence on the question of liability was, as I have learnt in the course of penning this post, consistent with that in New South Wales Bar Association v Butland [2008] NSWADT 120.

Now the Supreme Court of NSW has reviewed the authorities and published a useful decision in the matter of BRJ v Council of the New South Wales Bar Association [2016] NSWSC 146 (Adamson J), making clear that mental illness may be relevant to the question of liability, as well as to the question of penalty where it is of course of critical relevance, citing Robinson v The Law Society of New South Wales (Supreme Court of New South Wales, Court of Appeal, unreported, 17 June 1977), a decision I have not come across before. Essentially, Justice Adamson said, it all depends on whether there was a mental element to the kind of conduct warranting discipline which is charged.  Conduct described as a failure to maintain standards of competence and diligence is not something to which the practitioner’s mental impairment is relevant.  In charges which rely on the practitioner having a particular state of mind do require analysis of the degree to which the practitioner’s state of mind was flourishing.  Professional misconduct at common law is determined by what competent and reputable peers would think of the conduct.  What they would think is affected by the degree to which the practitioner’s mind was flourishing at the relevant time.

Unfortunately for the barrister who was the subject of the disciplinary hearing under appeal in this case, all this meant that though the Tribunal and the Court accepted that her conduct was caused by her psychiatric illness, she was nevertheless properly found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct constituted by failing to maintain standards of competence and diligence and acting in the face of a conflict between self-interest and duty to her client.  The test for such unsatisfactory professional conduct does not enquire into the mind of the practitioner, the Court found.  Accordingly, the psychiatric causation was legally irrelevant.

See also this sister post, about the disciplinary Tribunal’s and the Supreme Court’s willingness to allow the practitioner to change her plea, once after the liability hearing but before the delivery of reasons and once on the eve of the hearing of the appeal.

Continue reading “The permissible forensic uses of historical mental illness in professional discipline trials”

What, exactly, is a reckless contravention of a conduct rule?

Under the Legal Practice Act, 1996, the distinction between what was then called ‘misconduct’ and what was then called ‘unsatisfactory conduct’ of the kind constituted by a breach of a conduct rule or of a provision of the Act, depended on whether the breach was wilful or reckless, in which case it was misconduct, or not, in which case it might amount to unsatisfactory conduct.  That distinction was abandoned in the Legal Profession Act, 2004, but continues to be used by VCAT’s Legal Practice List as a guide to determining whether a breach of the rules or the Act amounts to the more or less serious of the categories of disciplinary wrongdoing, now known as ‘professional misconduct’ and ‘unsatisfactory professional conduct’.  The meaning of ‘reckless’ in this context has long been governed by an unreported decision of JD Phillips J, Zaitman and Law Institute of Victoria, Supreme Court of Victoria, 9 December 2004.

It was summarised in the biggest Victorian lawyers’ discipline case in recent years, Victorian Bar Inc v CEM QC [2006] VCAT 1417, and the relevant passage is a much easier way to work out what ‘reckless’ means in this context than a consideration of Zaitman’s Case which does not give up its essence easily.  The whole passage is set out below, but the take home point is that:

‘in order to establish recklessness, it is necessary to show that [the lawyer] appreciated the risk that their conduct in a particular instance might possibly amount to a breach of the rule, and knowing that risk, proceeded, intending to take that risk. In circumstances where [the lawyer] holds a bona fide belief that their conduct does not amount to a contravention of the rule, it cannot be reckless for [him or her] to proceed.’

Continue reading “What, exactly, is a reckless contravention of a conduct rule?”

Honest and reasonable mistake as a defence to disciplinary charges

Senior Member Howell decided last year in Legal Services Commissioner v RMB [2010] VCAT 51 that there is a mens rea element to professional discipline offences under the Legal Profession Act, 2004, in that there is a defence of ‘honest and reasonable mistake’.  That fascinates me, since under the previous Act, misconduct and unsatisfactory conduct was often delineated by the presence or absence of knowledge that the conduct engaged in breached a norm of conduct. Conduct in ignorance of its wrongfulness was punishable as unsatisfactory conduct.  Now, though, there is no knowledge element built into the definitions of the 2004 Act, and there seems to be no particular reason why the concept of honest and reasonable mistake which has been imported from the criminal law, might not apply equally to cases of professional misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct. Continue reading “Honest and reasonable mistake as a defence to disciplinary charges”

Commissioner’s obligation to charge dishonesty if he intends to allege it

Relatively recently, I posted on the question of whether a Bureau de Spank desiring to rely on a practitioner’s dishonesty or other form of conscious wrongdoing must expressly allege it in the charge, and discussed Walter v Council of Queensland Law Society Incorporated (1988) 77 ALR 228 at 234; [1988] HCA 8.  Now, in Legal Services Commissioner v Madden (No 2) [2008] QCA 301 the Queensland Court of Appeal has had a go, and reversed a decision of the Court’s Chief Justice sitting on the Legal Practice Tribunal.  The solicitor had previously been disciplined in relation to his trust account.  He was charged with gross delay in litigation which resulted in applications by the other side to compel the achievement of various interlocutory steps.  He dealt with those applications without advising his client, agreed on his client’s behalf to pay costs, withdrew money to pay those costs from monies held in trust on account of fees and disbursements, and then charged the client fees for his work in fixing up his own mistake.  He also acted for both husband and wife in the preparation of a pre-nup, apparently stuffing it up, and then later acted in a matrimonial dispute for the husband alone, described as a particularly obvious conflict of duties.

The Chief Justice made findings of dishonesty in the absence of any allegation of dishonesty in the charge.  One might say, in fact, that he went out of his way to do so.  First he sought comment in relation to whether on the agreed facts, the Tribunal was free to draw inferences that dishonesty actuated the solicitor’s conduct, and invited the Commissioner to amend the charge so as to allow exploration of that issue.  His Honour adjourned the hearing to give the Commissioner time to think about that. On the return of the hearing, the Commissioner declined the invitation to amend.  So the Tribunal put out a document specifying, as a matter of procedural fairness, the inferences it was considering drawing, and invited argument.  The solicitor swore an affidavit responding to the Tribunal’s document.  The Commissioner’s counsel cross-examined the solicitor, but did not put it to him that he had acted dishonestly. The Tribunal then concluded that the solicitor had acted dishonestly, and decided to strike him off rather than go with the fine and reprimand recommended by the Commissioner.  Ooffa!

‘Wrong way. Go back!’ said the Court of Appeal.  It started with a general proposition:

’54 It is … a well recognised rule of practice in civil proceedings that, although the word “dishonesty” is not necessarily required, any charge of dishonesty must be made in clear terms.  In a well known passage in Belmont Finance Corporation Ltd v Williams Furniture Ltd & Ors [1979] Ch 250 at 268  Buckley LJ said: Continue reading “Commissioner’s obligation to charge dishonesty if he intends to allege it”

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”

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’”

Suddenly, solicitors are losing their practising certificates for not cooperating with the Bureau de Spank

Update, 13 June 2008: In Legal Services Commissioner v GT [2008] VCAT 982, the solicitor failed to respond to a Bureau demand for 8 months. The complaint about which the Commissioner sought information was of not attending to client affairs, just like the complaint which, amongst others, gave rise to two misconduct findings and two ‘standards breaches’ about 10 years ago.  He got off with a light fine: $500, and costs agreed at about $1,500 on the basis that he was:

’employed by The Micah Law Centre Incorporated, which was conducted by All Saints Anglican Church at Greensborough.

8 He said that he was overwhelmed by the amount of work that he was required to perform.  He said that he worked six days each week, and sometimes seven days.  He said that he suffered from a “severe bronchial viral infection” for ten weeks prior to December 2007.  During that period he struggled to attend to his work, but was required to do so because there was no other person to attend to his files.  He added that he became physically and emotionally exhausted, and that his work had severely impacted upon his marriage.’

and that ‘he is without employment, and … he has not applied to renew his practising certificate as from 1 July 2008.  He also said that he is taking “time out for rest and recuperation”, and to re-build his relationship with his wife.’

Original post: This post is about recent s. 4.4.11(1)(a) prosecutions of 8 solicitors. Section 4.4.11(1)(a) of the Legal Profession Act, 2004 says that if the Bureau de Spank asks for a full written explanation of the conduct the subject of a complaint (or an investigation of the Commissioner’s own volition), or compels the production of apposite documents, the solicitor must cough up within the time specified in the demand, which may not be fewer than 14 days (but is routinely expressed as ‘within 16 days’ though within 16 days of what is not specified). Its predecessor was s. 149 of the Legal Practice Act, 1996. So many people are getting prosecuted that it was getting too boring to blog. But just when I was about to ignore them, VCAT started getting tough, and actually cancelled a couple of blokes’ practising certificates and said it would have cancelled another’s but for the fact that he was retiring anyway. Continue reading “Suddenly, solicitors are losing their practising certificates for not cooperating with the Bureau de Spank”