Costs in settlements of claims by persons under disability

Associate Justice Lansdowne has released for publication an edited transcript of reasons her Honour gave in Chan v Falls Creek Alpine Resort Management Board for not approving a proposed compromise of the claim of a person under a disability. The citation for the decision is  [2014] VSC 314.  ‘Disability’ in this sense is a term of art and extends to the disability of being a minor.

The plaintiff, through his litigation guardian, had proposed a compromise in terms which were expressed as an amount for the claim and an amount for his costs.  Her Honour pointed to Sztockman v Taylor [1979] VR 572 which suggests that such compromises are to be discouraged lest the plaintiff’s solicitors be attracted to an offer which is comparatively favourable in relation to costs but comparatively unfavourable in relation to the claim.  That raises a conflict between interest and duty which is inherent in any compromise structured this way, but which is comparatively impermissible because of the disability of the plaintiff and the important role played by the parties’ lawyers in assisting the Court to evaluate the reasonableness of the compromise, a judicial function which is not a feature of compromises of claims by people not under a disability.  Another reason for the discouragement of such compromises is that the judge approving the compromise is ill-equipped to assess the reasonableness of the proposed compromise in relation to costs.

Following the non-approval of the compromise, the deal was renegotiated such that the settlement sum was expressed on an all-in basis as the total of the separate sums originally proposed by way of compromise of the claim and of costs.  That sum was to be paid to the Senior Master and the plaintiff’s solicitors were to apply to the Senior Master for costs.  The renegotiated proposed compromise was approved by the Court.

The delicious perils of qua; on suing yourself

Update: I knew that the study of autolitigation would be nicely developed somewhere. Former barrister Malcolm Park brought to my attention his article that was published in (Winter 1992) 81 Bar News 79-80, ‘On Both Sides of the Record’:

‘It is accepted law that a person cannot appear as plaintiff and defendant in the same proceedings. Our wandering reporter, Mal Park, has discovered that even apparently trite law is not of universal application. Sheriffs and even lawyers, like pop stars, may sometimes appear on both sides of the record. Continue reading “The delicious perils of qua; on suing yourself”

Plaintiff’s barrister restrained from acting after communicating directly with defendant

Allison v Tuna Tasmania Pty Ltd [2011] TASSC 52 is a case decided on the rarest ground for restraining a lawyer from acting, namely that ‘A fair minded reasonably informed member of the public would conclude that the proper administration of justice requires that the lawyer be prevented from acting in the interests of the protection of the integrity of the judicial process and the due administration of justice, including the appearance of justice.’ The leading case in Victoria is Grimwade v Meagher (1995) 1 VR 446, which was relied on by Holt AsJ.

A Queensland barrister acted for the plaintiff in Tasmanian litigation on a no-win no-fee basis.  He was in financial difficulties, owing a lot of money.  He had a social relationship with the plaintiff and stayed at his home.  He arranged to meet the defendant alone over lunch without the consent of anyone in the defendant’s legal team. This was contrary to r. 51 of the Queensland 2011 Barristers’ Rules, and amounted to ‘misconduct’. The barrister told the defendant, in the 20 minute meeting, that he thought the plaintiff would recover about $25 million from the defendant but he could convince the plaintiff to settle for $2 million.  He said initially he did not involve the defendant’s solicitor because he did not trust him, without advancing any rational basis for the lack of trust, but later said that he let his emotions get the better of him.  In combination these factors proved that the barrister lacked the independence and objectivity necessary to represent the plaintiff without bringing the administration of justice into disrepute, and the Supreme Court of Tasmania restrained him from acting further.

The application was made within the original litigation, and the order was as follows:

‘[The barrister] is to provide no further legal services, paid or unpaid, direct or indirect, in connection with the action.’

What happens if you root your matrimonial client’s wife?

America’s excellent Professional Responsibility Blog, to which I have added a link in my blogroll, is published by Professor Alberto Bernabe of Chicago.  He has gathered together the answers, in America at least.  In the latest eruption of lust in connection with legal practice, which involved only an attempt, the Indiana Supreme Court just told the attorney to take a break for 90 days.  Despite the fact, that is, that his retainer by the husband was in relation to matrimonial disputes with the wife. The Professor’s latest contribution to the ever-enjoyable debate about sex with clients is here.  The Texans are all angst-riddled about whether to prohibit the practice.  The Professor also recently published another in his series of ‘How Not to Practice Law‘: ‘Ask Client to Pay Fees with Drugs‘.

NSW suspends corrupt lawyer after raid on home

An ICAC enquiry resulted in a finding that a senior lawyer at NSW Maritime was corrupt following Operation Vargus: their report is here. That agency oversees marine safety and strategy in all things to do with the sea for the State Government.  Tonette Kelly was moonlighting, working a 100 client, $120,000 a year private conveyancing business while employed full-time. She procured NSW Maritime to purchase professional liability insurance for her, understated her income in her insurance application (so as to lower the premium), engaged other employees of the legal department for reward on her conveyancing files, lied about her activities, and forged a document in her cover up.  She had in fact sought permission from her employer to do about 1 hour’s work a week during work hours, but her moonlighting expanded beyond her employer’s understanding.  Now the NSW Legal Services Commissioner has suspended her practising certificate on the basis of the ICAC findings, and ICAC has suggested the possibility of criminal prosecution for misconduct in public office. NSW Maritime has changed its mind about paying for her defence.

This is tough stuff; damning evidence against Ms Kelly — 4,568 faxes sent from her employer’s fax machine — were seized in a raid on her home.  I have heard of nothing like it by Legal Services Commissioners, and have my doubts about whether, in Victoria, such a matter would be referred to the police so as to allow them to carry out a similar raid.  This involved government corruption, the eradication of which is undoubtedly an important end, especially in NSW, but the social ills generated by lawyers behaving badly, especially in litigation, must be right up there in terms of societal undesirability, worthy too of vigorous investigation. In fact, this is a rare instance of the stipes going up against the big end of town.  The involvement of whistleblowers may explain the curiosity.

NSW’s latest spin on Spincode’s duty of loyalty

In Cleveland Investments Global Ltd v Evans [2010] NSWSC 567, Justice Ward reviewed the authorities spinning off Spincode Pty Ltd v Look Software Pty Ltd [2001] VSCA 248; (2001) 4 VR 501, in which Justice of Appeal Brooking set out his views in relation to the ‘duty of loyalty’ as a grounds for restraining solicitors from acting.  Her Honour reviewed the authorities in considerable detail (so that the judgment is a useful repository of the state of the law up there in NSW), and concluded: Continue reading “NSW’s latest spin on Spincode’s duty of loyalty”

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”

Conflict applications to restrain opposing solicitors from acting not interlocutory

In Legal Practice Board v Lashanky [2008] WASC 294, the Supreme Court of Western Australia’s Justice Chambers said that applications to restrain solicitors from acting are not interlocutory applications, so that affidavit evidence may not be given from information and belief (i.e. the hearsay prohibition is not relaxed as it is for interlocutory applications):

’29    Under O 37 r 6(2) of the Rules of the Supreme Court 1971 (WA), an affidavit used for the purposes of interlocutory proceedings may contain statements of information and belief. However, an application to restrain a solicitor from acting is not an interlocutory proceeding. Continue reading “Conflict applications to restrain opposing solicitors from acting not interlocutory”

Conflict of duties and the limited retainer

This is a post about David v David [2009] NSWCA 8 (the decision at first instance is at [2007] NSWSC 855). Karl Suleman has been good to professional negligence lawyers.  He procured other Assyrians to invest in excellent sounding supermarket trolley schemes.  ‘Give me $50,000’, he said to one investor, ‘and shopping trolleys will pay you $1,350 a fortnight for 10 years’.  That is a return of 600%.  Something must not have worked out the way it was supposed to, because the punters lost their dough and Karl went to jail. The punters sued their lawyers, and any other lawyers on the horizon. Continue reading “Conflict of duties and the limited retainer”

Latest on whether solicitors engage in trade or commerce: part I

Leong v J P Sesto & Co [2009] VCAT 99 is the latest in the on-again off-again saga of whether solicitors engage in trade or commerce, and, whether, if not, it means that VCAT does not have jurisdiction over claims involving them, and if so, which claims. Senior Member Vassie considered the question in the context of an application to set aside a costs agreement. It was heard in October 2008 and decided on 30 January 2009. The NSW Court of Appeal’s decision in Kowalczuk v Accom Finance [2008] NSWCA 343, decided on 10 December 2008 was not referred to (see Part II).

The application was made on the orthodox basis (under the predecessor of the Legal Profession Act, 2004) and supplemented by somewhat half-hearted arguments under the Fair Trading Act, 1999, the state equivalent of the Trade Practices Act, 1974. The law is quite clear that regardless of whether lawyers engaged in their core professional roles of representation and advising are engaged in in trade or commerce (the traditional view is that they are not), some aspects of their businesses are. What this decision says is that in negotiating fees, lawyers are engaging in trade or commerce, and so causes of action which seek relief in relation to costs agreements under the Fair Trading Act, 1999 and which are dependent on conduct in trade or commerce are available to clients. (It might be worth tucking away for future thought whether a lawyer who does not negotiate and seeks to recover fees only on scale or practitioners remuneration order, could be said to be engaging in trade or commerce, but it is unlikely such a costs agreement would be the subject of an application to set it aside.)

The decision also asserts that the Fair Trading Act, 1999‘s definition of ‘services’ requires that the services be in trade or commerce, contrary to an earlier considered decision of the Legal Practice List, which it seems may not have been cited to Senior Member Vassie. No argument on this point is recorded in the decision. Ironically, if this decision is followed, the result may be a narrowing of VCAT’s jurisdiction, because in those causes of action which do not specifically require conduct in trade or commerce, but require ‘services’, VCAT’s previous position was that the services did not have to be in trade or commerce to come within the definition, because though the words ‘trade or commerce’ appeared in the definition, the definition was inclusory, and only ‘included’ certain conduct in trade or commerce, rather than mandating ‘trade or commerce’ as an essential characteristic of activity falling within the meaning of ‘services’. An example of such a jurisdiction is the one to resolve ‘consumer-trader disputes’, a jurisdiction which essentially grants to VCAT common law jurisdiction enhanced by special legislative powers over all disputes arising directly out of the provision of services, regardless of their value. In those instances of lawyers’ conduct which are not engaged in in trade or commerce, Senior Member Vassie’s construction of the Act would deny VCAT jurisdiction where it would otherwise have had jurisdiction by virtue of the expansive construction of the definition of ‘services’. (Note that J P Sesto & Co v Jadewealth Pty Ltd [2009] VCAT 80 is essentially the same judgment in the same case.)

What Senior Member Vassie said was: Continue reading “Latest on whether solicitors engage in trade or commerce: part I”

Solicitor gets three year break for multiple conflict findings

In Legal Services Commissioner v DJMH [2008] VCAT 2301, Deputy President McNamara’s tribunal ordered the solicitor not to practice before 1 July 2011 for multiple findings of acting in the face of a conflict.  It is unfortunate that the reasons for decision do not allow an understanding of what was alleged.  It had something to do with conflicts of duties in lending transactions described as ‘very serious indeed’.  The gravamen of the charges, according to the Deputy President was that the solicitor: Continue reading “Solicitor gets three year break for multiple conflict findings”

Issac’s holiday; plea bargaining in disciplinary charges examined

Issac’s style of legal letter writing is legendary. There are some quite extensive private collections out there. I recall one letter said to have been penned by the man himself which began ‘Dear Sir, you are a petulant lunatic,’ and after some substantive words continued ‘You are a very small cog in a very big wheel and it seems that it will long stay that way.’

I have long been a fan of his extremely colourful and yet less-is-more webpage, which has said, for as long as I can remember, in yellow and red text surrounded by blue fire ‘We at Issac [B] and Co make a firm commitment to a flexible, approach to law’.  Such heterodox ebullience can only be tolerated so long in the dark suited depressed salaryman world of the Melbourne legal fraternity, and the other day, the sombre might of the law came down on the iconoclast for what the humourless powers that be characterised as too much flexibility. Continue reading “Issac’s holiday; plea bargaining in disciplinary charges examined”

Latest Family Court lawyer’s conflict case

Bracewell & Southall [2008] FamCA 687, a 13 August 2008 decision of Justice Bennett of the Family Court sitting in Melbourne is the latest on lawyers’ conflicts of duties in the context of family law — a whole relatively separate sphere of analysis of lawyers’ conflicts.  It seems to me that injunctions restraining lawyers from acting on the third ‘administration of justice’ limb are becoming more common.  This is an example of the trend.  Solicitors who acted for the Department of Human Services in a child protection application against a woman were restrained from subsequently acting for her husband in matrimonial proceedings involving issues in relation to a different child borne not to the husband but to another man. The conclusion read: Continue reading “Latest Family Court lawyer’s conflict case”

Lawyers and the criminal law

Reproduced below is a blog post about ‘bill padding’ from the US site, Legal Blog Watch. That is where lawyers say work took them longer than it really did, and so charge commensurately more, or even make up the fact that they did work, and charge for it. Sometimes I read articles like this and wonder whether lawyers don’t think they live in a different world where, if they commit crimes, what will happen to them is that they will be dealt with by professional discipline. They think that, or course, because it’s more or less true, unless you get caught stealing from your trust account.  But the criminality of time sheet crime should not be allowed to be buried under anodyne euphemisms. ‘Bill padding’ sounds kind of cute, a necessary evil. It is a kind of newspeak. Time to do away with it. Let’s call it ‘rapacity fraud’.  It is tolerated by the profession in this sense.  There are generalised allegations of widespread bill padding.  Talk privately to costs consultants and they will tell you all about it.   But I have never heard of a firm which has even basic anti-fraud procedures to detect the practice.

My point kind of makes itself when the author says ‘allegations of bill padding … drew … strong criticism about the practice from legal ethics experts’.  Experts say fraud is bad?  Well shit Sherlock!  The 9th commandment does kind of feature relatively prominently in most systems of law.  We’re going to have the case one day when someone actually subpoenas a firm’s electronic billing system and its metadata, and diaries, analyses when the billing entries were made, and cross-examines lawyers on how they could have billed 180 units in a day and still made it to the client function at 6 p.m., or why, having billed relatively consistently every day, they would suddenly remember on the 30th of the month some comparatively vaguely described units they had forgotten to record mid-month, or why given that they had used a precedent for similar documents three times previously in the same month, they decided to draft the document from scratch, only to end up with — you guessed it — the same document as the precedent.  Now, that article: Continue reading “Lawyers and the criminal law”

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”

Both sides apply to restrain the other’s lawyers from acting

I prepared an application to restrain a firm of solicitors from acting in a Corporations List matter in the Supreme Court recently, and so have been reading the latest cases about conflict injunctions. The very latest is TJ Board & Sons Pty Ltd v Castello [2008] VSC 91, where the plaintiff applied unsuccessfully to restrain the defendants’ solicitors from acting, and the defendants applied to restrain the plaintiff’s solicitors from acting. Neither succeeded in convincing Justice Hollingworth. The first application is interesting in making some comment on:

  • the materiality of the evidence which a solicitor must be likely to give; and
  • the extent of a personal interest in the outcome of the litigation as a result of participation in the controversial events which a solicitor must have

before he or she will be enjoined from acting because of a conflict of duty and interest.

The second application is a relatively unremarkable application of the law relating to confidential information based conflicts which allegedly arose out of a pre-retainer 20 minute ‘meet and greet’ which did not lead on to a retainer. Continue reading “Both sides apply to restrain the other’s lawyers from acting”

Application by appellant to remove respondent’s trial counsel from appeal dismissed

In Chen v Chan [2008] VSCA 2, President Maxwell and Justice of Appeal Redlich dismissed an application by the appellant for an order enjoining the respondent’s solicitor and counsel from acting in the appeal. The applicant alleged that there had been wrongdoing by the respondent’s lawyers at the trial. In fact that was one of the grounds of appeal. It is certainly the case that where a lawyer is to be a witness, he ought not continue to act, especially as an advocate. But their Honours held: Continue reading “Application by appellant to remove respondent’s trial counsel from appeal dismissed”

A non-exhaustive bibliography on lawyers’ conflicts of duties between insurer and insured

Speaking, as I was in the last post, about AILA’s Geoff Masel lecture series, here is the 2006 lecture, delivered by Tony Scotford of Ebsworth & Ebsworth’s Sydney office. It is yet another contribution to the much talked about but little done about problem of insurer-appointed defence lawyers in liability claims and their potentially conflicting duties to the insurer and the insured. I hope he will not consider me too impertinent in reproducing his bibliography as an incomplete list of sources on this question (featuring papers by both Geoff Masel and Greg Reinhardt). Continue reading “A non-exhaustive bibliography on lawyers’ conflicts of duties between insurer and insured”

2nd edition of Professional Liability in Australia reviewed

I was already a fan of the first edition of Judge Stephen Walmsley SC, Alister Abadee, and Ben Zipser‘s excellent Professional Liability in Australia, published by Thomson, and had been waiting for the new edition with interest. I got myself a copy the other day. It’s good, and there are substantial additions since the first edition, including a lot on expert evidence, a new bit on professional discipline, analysis of the Financial Services Reform Act, 2001, analysis of the cases on the civil liability acts and a good analysis of proportionate liability.

It is a text which delves into all of the legislation which clusters around professional liability these days and grapples with it, a thankless task for an Australian text writer compelled to read and understand all of the states’ and territories’ regimes and then synthesise them. So the availability of compensation in professional discipline regimes is treated properly, as is the effect of professional standards legislation, which caps liability for scheme mebers. The research is wide-ranging and thorough: a VCAT decision is cited. It is written from a practical perspective rather than a theoretical perspective. There is not the over-reliance on English authority which sometimes characterises texts in this area. The writing tends to take positions rather than carrying on at great length about parallel or divergent lines of authorities without suggesting which is to be preferred. One suspects that bad decisions have simply been ignored in the hope that they will be forgotten. If only more text writers would operate in this fashion.

Professional negligence is one of those areas of law in which everyone claims to be a specialist. There are, for example, 387 barristers at the Victorian Bar who claim on their web profile to practise in professional negligence. Then there are undoubtedly many others, like me, who haven’t listed their practice areas using the scheme which allows for searching like that.

Thomson has kindly offered a 10% discount for readers of this blog if you go to their bookshop at 160 William St, Melbourne. Alternatively, the book can be purchased online, for $220 inclusive of postage and handling.

Continue reading “2nd edition of Professional Liability in Australia reviewed”

Solicitors’ liability paper; conflicts of lawyers acting for insurer and insured

Here’s a link to a little article on the law relating to the possible conflicts of duties faced by a lawyer retained by a liability insurer to act for its insured in the defence of proceedings against the insured. It discusses 3 English cases:

  • Brown v Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance;
  • TSB Bank v Robert Irvin; and
  • Zurich Professional v Karim.

And here’s a link to an excellent solicitors’ liability publication from Barlow Lyde & Gilbert. It deals with the new professional conduct rules in England, solicitors’ liability for mortgage fraud, lawyers’ obligations to their opponents, and an unusual case in which liability insurers were ordered by the Court to pay £1 million in legal costs of a failed defence even though the limit of indemnity had been exhausted by the judgment. That was ordered on the basis of these apparently unremarkable circumstances:

‘(i) the insurers determined that the claim would be fought; (ii) the insurers funded the defence of the claim; (iii) the insurers had effective conduct of the claim; (iv) the insurers fought the claim exclusively to defend their own interests; and (v) the defence failed in its entirety.’