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  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  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.