Finally, some scholarship on Australian lawyers’ conflicts of duties

Finally, someone has gone a long way towards synthesising the law relating to injunctions to restrain lawyers from acting in the face of a conflict of duties. The Melbourne University Law Review article is “Conflicts of Duty: the Perennial Lawyers’ Tale — A comparative Study of the Law in England and Australia”, [2006] MULR 4. Sandro Goubran has done an extraordinary amount of reading and has distilled things well. The last such effort was Matt Connock’s ‘Restraining Lawyers from Acting in the Face of a Conflict: Discussion and Advice in Australia’ (1995) 12 Australian Bar Review 244. (There is a whole blog devoted to the subject in America.)

As an index to pin-point citations in relation to the various issues which arise, the work will be of immense practical value to counsel who have to argue these relatively common applications. I wonder whether Goubran thinks, having read all the cases, it was rewarding academically. I have also read most of them, and the abiding impression I have is that — certain judges aside — this area of the law is one in which judges making it up as they go along is more than usually rife. Further, no one reads and considers the same 10 of the 100 or so generally single judge decisions swimming around out there on the question before deciding these cases. The lines of authority are fractured. Goubran’s article might do something to remedy this, but that all depends on how many people read the MULR I suppose.

Goubran is with me in being mystified by the sometimes hysterical reaction adverse to Justice Brooking’s judgment in Spincode v Look Software (2001) 4 VR 501, and astute to point out that the duty of loyalty is only ever considered in the context of the taking up of the cudgels against a former client in the same or a closely related matter.

I have selected two matters raised by him in the two successive posts for special comment.

The solicitor and “the other side’s witness”, part II

Part I is the extraordinary story of a leading labour lawyer in Melbourne who was found to have induced breach of contract in taking a statement from an ex-employee of the other side in a class action in which the lawyer was the plaintiffs’ solicitor. Unbeknownst to him, the ex-employee continued to be bound by a confidentiality agreement.

Part II is a simple case in which the defendant’s solicitor applied to enjoin the plaintiff’s solicitor from continuing to act, based on a conflict of duties, Grego v Great Western Insurance Brokers Pty Ltd [2006] WASC 284. It was a workers’ compensation case brought by a fisherman in relation to an injury said to have been sustained on the remote Abrolhos Islands. The defendant said the payment of wages by the company which engaged in the fishing activities (of which the plaintiff and his wife were the directors) was a retrospective fiddling of the books after the alleged accident. The plaintiff interviewed the defendant’s accountant in relation to discovered documents, having alleged a fraudulent conspiracy to claim loss of wages. The accountant willingly cooperated in the preparation of an affidavit. Its contents were not damaging to the plaintiff [20]. This was said to amount to an “obvious breach of the duty of confidence” owed by the accountant to the plaintiff as his client.

There is no criticism of the defendant’s solicitor in the judgment because there is no property in a witness. The accountant must have woken up to the inappropriateness of what he was doing, though, because he sent the draft affidavit to the plaintiff’s lawyer for comment before signing.

When told of this, the defendant’s lawyer objected, saying that the accountant had disclosed a privileged document to the plaintiff’s lawyer. He said a draft witness statement is privileged under the litigation limb of legal professional privilege (a normally uncontroversial proposition) and the accountant had interfered with the defendant’s privilege by providing it to the plaintiff’s solicitor. The accountant did go on to swear an affidavit in the terms of the draft, having taken counsel’s advice and having been advised by the plaintiff’s solicitor that it was entirely a question for the accountant whether he signed the affidavit or not (the judge found at [39] that this constituted the implicit conveying of the plaintiff’s consent to the swearing of the affidavit). So by the time of the injunction application, that had already occurred, and could not be restrained. There was no attempt to restrain the use of the affidavit in the litigation. The defendant applied for the plaintiff’s solicitor to be restrained on the basis that the solicitor had:

“2.1 wilfully infringed against the legal professional privilege of the [defendant] in a draft affidavit;

2.2 have placed [himself] in a position where [his] duties to the plaintiff and [his] duties to a material witness necessarily conflict;

2.3 by [his] actions have created a perception that [he] interfered with a witness in the giving of evidence.”

His counsel’s argument met with about as little success as is possible. Justice Peter Blaxell said: Continue reading “The solicitor and “the other side’s witness”, part II”

Gullible but not dishonest solicitor gets 6 months for failing to report own client to authorities

It happened in England (see their Law Society’s sophisticated guidelines) in R. v McCarten [2004] NICA 43, but a similar law is coming our way: this month, the Anti Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing Bill 2006 was introduced into federal parliament. Another bill is anticipated which will extend it specifically to lawyers, discussed below. (Update: see the Blakes take here.)

The English cases are digested in this Lawyers’ Weekly article. In R v. Griffin, a proceeds of crime case, the solicitor was jailed for 15 months, though in circumstances of wilful blindness: Continue reading “Gullible but not dishonest solicitor gets 6 months for failing to report own client to authorities”

No litigation privilege in anticipation of non-”truly adversarial” proceedings

Ingot Capital Investments Pty Ltd v Macquarie Equity Capital Markets Ltd [2006] NSWSC 530 says the litigation limb of legal professional privilege at common law is not available where the communication was brought into existence for the dominant purpose of use in or preparation for litigation which is not truly adversarial (the situation is no better under the Uniform Evidence Acts, where the litigaiton limb is limited to anticipated litigation in courts, defined to mean places “required” to apply the laws of evidence). The litigation in point was administrative review by the AAT. Justice Neil Young made a similar finding in AWB v Honourable Terence Rhoderic Hudson Cole [2006] FCA 571, in relation to documents prepared for use in, or preparation for, the AWB Royal Commission. I wonder whether we will one day see a suit against a lawyer for negligently failing to inform clients of this exception to what is generally understood to be the unfettered secrecy of lawyer-client communications.

Law Institute Journal tallies the score on Spincode

I have never understood what it is about Justice Brooking’s extended obiter on the fiduciary duty of loyalty in Spincode  Pty Ltd v Look Software Pty Ltd (2001) 4 VR 501 which prompted such apoplexy. I would have thought that the second most obvious conflict of duties (after acting concurrently for two opposing parties) would be to swap sides in the one dispute. I think it is in fact this: people hear “duty of loyalty” and think “I can’t act against anyone I’ve ever acted for? No way!” But the only content of the duty of loyalty is not to “take up the cudgels against a former client in the same or a closely related matter”. What’s not to like about such a proposition? Nevertheless, it is a substantial departure from the House of Lords’s position and finds little favour in NSW. Continue reading “Law Institute Journal tallies the score on Spincode”

Roisin Annesley’s Victorian Barristers’ practice guide

The Bar has produced a practice guide. It is a great achievement and stands as a beacon for the Law Institute’s future efforts at promulgating knowledge of the practice rules. The Bar actually has something called the Professional Standards Education Committee. Written by Roisin Annesley, it was launched by Victoria Marles, the Legal Services Commissioner on 18 October 2006, and distributed free to every member of the Bar. Annesley has done a lot of work as Counsel Assisting the Legal Profession Tribunal (and continues to do occasional work assisting the Legal Practice List at VCAT). A doyen of professional discipline, Paul Lacava SC, and a judge who has excoriated Professional Standards, Justice Gillard, are credited with substantial involvement. It has chapters on: Continue reading “Roisin Annesley’s Victorian Barristers’ practice guide”

Detailed new conflict rules commence in England

Solicitors’ Practice (Conflict) Amendment Rule 2004

(1) (Introduction)

(a) This rule sets out provisions for dealing with conflicts of interest other than
those conflicts in relation to conveyancing, property selling or mortgage
related services which are dealt with in rule 6.

(b) This rule applies to a regulated individual and a regulated practice.

(c) Conflicts between the duty of confidence and duty of disclosure owed by an
individual or a practice to two or more clients are dealt with in rule 16E. Continue reading “Detailed new conflict rules commence in England”

UK okays lawyers attacking former client’s honesty across a Chinese wall

The little guy in the centre is Lord Justice Mummery of the English Court of Appeal, an Oxford man shown here awarding some trophies at Oxford. He wrote the lead judgment in Gus Consulting GMBH v LeBoeuf Lamb Greeme & Macrae [2006] EWCA 683 handed down in late May. The American law firm against which the injunction was sought wheeled out Lord Neill of Blanden QC, a former judge, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Chairman of the Bar Council, Chairman of the Senate of the Inns of Court, Chairman of the Press Council, director of The Times, legal adviser to the Synod of the Church of England, and Chairman of the Committee of Enquiry into Regulatory Arrangements at Lloyds. About as English as a pork pie, and a one-time member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to boot. He got a difficult argument across the line.

A law firm discovered that it was acting in a dispute “which involve[d] a consideration of work they themselves did for those clients [7 to 8 years previously] and an attack on the honesty and integrity of their former clients in those very transactions”. Worse, the conflict had been missed when the lawyers who were mounting the attack on the former client joined the firm, bringing the new client with them. But until the conflict was noticed, the month after the lawyers’ move, the new members of the firm had been oblivious to the work previously done by it for the people they were now attacking, and steps were quickly put in place to prevent any access to the former client’s files. The Court refused an injunction sought by the former client enjoining the firm from acting against it, finding the Chinese wall to be efficacious. This is a case which falls squarely within what is governed by the Victorian Court of Appeal’s duty of loyalty to former clients: the taking up of cudgels against a former client in relation to the same or a related matter.

Having read many conflict cases, I strongly suspect cases involving mergers result in injunctions much more rarely than others. Furthermore, the fact that the injunction would have resulted in the loss to the new client of a legal team which had obviously been engaged for 3 years in a complicated dispute must have been a matter of great influence, though it is an entirely hidden factor in the reasons.

So the former client cannot enjoin its former lawyers from taking up the cudgels against it in a related matter. But what is to stop the new client of the firm from suing it for breach of the duty of disclosure (which is the duty which conflicts with the duty to keep the former client’s information confidential in these kinds of cases) when it fails to disclose that which it has undertaken to the Court not to disclose though it is relevant and “goes to the heart of” a key issue in the arbitration?

Continue reading “UK okays lawyers attacking former client’s honesty across a Chinese wall”

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.]
Continue reading “A duty not to tempt witnesses to breach likely confidentiality obligations?”