Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it

Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] QCAT 237 is a decision of a disciplinary tribunal presided over by Justice David Thomas, President of QCAT and a Supreme Court judge. It is therefore of high persuasive value, and treats Queensland provisions which are the same as the equivalent Victorian provisions. And it provides what I suggest with respect are the correct answers to the following questions:

  • How negligent do you have to be before you can be found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct as defined in provisions which say that the concept includes ‘conduct that falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that a member of the public is entitled to expect of a reasonably competent’ lawyer holding a practising certificate? (Answer at [44] and [27]: substantial and very obvious fallings short of the standard, established by direct inferences from exact proofs.)
  • What must be pleaded specifically in a disciplinary charge? (Answer at [82] – [92]: all states of mind, not only dishonest intents, and all facts to be relied on (‘the charges to be levelled must be fully and adequately set out in the Discipline Application. As a matter of procedural fairness, the Practitioner should not be left in any doubt as to the extent of the allegations that is to be met.’)
  • To what extent is a disciplinary tribunal constrained in its decision making by the allegations specifically made in the charge? (Answer at [96] – [108]: absolutely: if no state of mind is alleged, the prosecution should not be allowed to call evidence as to state of mind; ‘it would be wrong to admit evidence the principal purpose of which is to establish conduct that lies beyond the ambit of the charge’.)
  • Does the mere fact that charges are not allowed on taxation mean that there has been overcharging such as to warrant discipline? (Answer at [76] – [77]: no)

The Tribunal dismissed charges against a solicitor who lodged a caveat pursuant to an equitable mortgage without checking that it satisfied the Statute of Frauds’ writing requirements and against a partner of her firm who took over her files when she was on holidays and billed the client for the work in attempting unsuccessfully to register the caveat.

I move from the specific facts of this QCAT case to general comment (what follows is certainly not veiled reference to the conduct of the Commissioner’s counsel in QCAT). There is a very real reason to insist on the particularization of states of mind in disciplinary tribunals, including particulars of actual and constructive knowledge. These details do not always get left out just because it is thought that disciplinary tribunals are not courts of pleading and such minutiae is not appropriate. Nor do they just get left out because they are thought to be inherent in the allegation, or because of incompetence, or mere mistake. Rather, they get left out because bureaucrats have investigated incompetently and when competent counsel come to plead disciplinary applications based on the investigation, they do not have a sufficient factual foundation to make these allegations, or perhaps are simply too timid.

But sometimes counsel with civil practices, untutored in the art of prosecutorial restraint, and safe in their private belief that the practitioner is in fact much more evil than incompetent investigation established, might fall prey to temptation. Mealy-mouthed, ambiguous allegations might be made which require the practitioner to get into the witness box. Then, all manner of unpleaded allegations as to states of mind and as to completely un-pleaded conduct, justified in relevance as tendency evidence or circumstantial evidence of the pleaded facts, might be cross-examined out of the practitioner and an unpleaded case presented to the disciplinary tribunal in closing. In a tribunal not bound by the rules of evidence, such questioning may be waved through with lip service to the proposition that objections will be dealt with by according appropriate weight to the evidence in the final analysis. Queensland leads the charge against such conduct, and I can’t help thinking it’s because Supreme Court judges seem to get involved in disciplinary decisions more often up there. All power to them. So impressed am I with this latest judgment, I have decided to go on a study tour of the Sunshine Coast in the September school holidays.

Continue reading “Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it”

VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice

I only learnt in the last few years that Melbourne is one of the world’s great Jewish cities, with a globally significant series of communities of orthodox adherents.  One of those orthodox communities has delivered up an interesting case.  In Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] VCAT 439, VCAT’s Acting President recently found a well known Melbourne solicitor guilty of two counts of professional misconduct, constituted by breaches of each limb of r. 30.1.2 of the solicitors’ professional conduct rules.

The rule prohibited conduct calculated to, or likely to a material degree to be, prejudicial to the administration of justice, or to diminish public confidence in the administration of justice, or adversely to prejudice a practitioner’s ability to practise according to these rules.

The practitioner’s disciplinary offence was first to state privately to his client’s father his disappointment after an orthodox Jew sitting watching someone else’s case in court had gone out of his way from the well of the court to assist police in the middle of a bail hearing in a criminal prosecution of the practitioner’s client. His second offence was committed when the man, whom I will refer to as the complainant since he lodged the disciplinary complaint which led to the practitioner’s disciplinary prosecution, rang the practitioner and asked him about comments to similar effect which the man had heard the practitioner had made, taping the call. The practitioner expressed directly to the man similar sentiments, expressly invoking the Jewish principle of ‘mesirah’ by which Jews who cooperated with secular authorities against fellow Jews in times and places where Jews enjoyed imperfect protection were ostracized. Jewish authorities have repeatedly said that the principle has no operation in modern day Australia in relation to criminal matters.

The Age has reported, in an article prominently featuring the practitioner, that victims of Jewish abusers have been pressured not to cooperate with police. It reported the Legal Services Commissioner as saying that ‘there was a general principle that made it impermissible for a lawyer to tell a witness they could not inform police about a matter because of a religious or community rule.’ I do not mean to criticise the Commissioner in this regard, because The Age sought his comments prior to the Commissioner’s receipt of the complaint, and the Commissioner was presumably simply responding to a general question about lawyers’ obligations towards witnesses in their cases. But what VCAT’s decision demonstrates is that the practitioner’s comments occurred after the conduct in question which the practitioner believed to have involved false statements based on misinformation, and were directed to a person who was not a witness and who, as far as the practitioner was aware, was simply someone who stood up in the well of the court and interfered in his client’s case. Given that, as far as the practitioner is said to have known, the man who stood up in court had no further role to play in the case or in his client’s drama more generally, it is hard to see how the practitioner could be said to have intended to pressure the man as a victim of a Jewish abuser not to cooperate further with the police in the future in bringing the abusers to justice, as seems to have been the implication. Continue reading “VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice”

Legal Services Commissioner seeks to overturn privilege against penalties

There is an old and well established privilege, the privilege against penalties, which is a relative of the privilege against self-incrimination.  It entitles solicitors facing disciplinary prosecution to stay silent throughout the proceedings until the end of the Commissioner’s case unless the Tribunal makes an order requiring provision of written grounds and an outline of argument identifying in broad terms what is in issue.  And even if such an order is made, compliance will not require the foreshadowing of any evidence or the admitting or denying of any facts.

The other day, a full frontal attack by the Legal Services Commissioner on the privilege in disciplinary prosecutions of solicitors did not result in it being distinguished out of existence.  Though there was no contradictor in the hearing, the President of VCAT, Justice Greg Garde, gave the challenge short shrift in LSC v Spaulding [2015] VCAT 292.

Since practitioners started increasingly exercising their right to stay silent after the disciplinary investigation has concluded and before the conclusion of the Commissioner’s case, the Commissioner has begun increasingly to seek orders for the service of a notice to admit, despite the absence of any rule-based regime in VCAT governing the consequences of non-response to such notices.  Some practitioners have consented to such orders and VCAT has made them.  There may be grounds to review decisions in such cases where the practitioner did not ‘waive’ the privilege, since President Ross said:

‘in the absence of a statutory provision to the contrary, or waiver by a respondent, the effect of penalty privilege is that a respondent cannot be ordered to make discovery, produce documents, provide information or respond to a notice to admit.’

Waiver as a concept in the law generally requires a high level of deliberate abandonment.  No doubt for that reason, the Commissioner began some time ago to alert practitioners to the existence of the privilege when proposing such orders.

President Garde has also made clear that the Tribunal itself has a duty ‘to ensure that a respondent is informed of the options in order to make an informed and voluntary decision whether or not to waive the privilege.’

The President also observed that many professionals will wish to make admissions if for no other reason than to be seen  to be appropriately cooperative, and to attenuate the issues and so diminish the costs which will be payable if the practitioner loses.  My clients often make extensive admissions, sometimes make denials, but often remain silent in relation to some issues and strenuously resist the characterisation of such silences the matters about which they have stayed silent as ‘denials’.  There is, however, nothing to be gained from consenting to an order to provide a response to a notice to admit.  When, as I have found to be the case, the notices are framed in a manner which purports to graft onto VCAT’s procedures a presumption of admission in the event of non-denial, great procedural uncertainty is generated, because, unlike in the state courts, there are no rules of procedure which provide a legal basis to generate such an admission.  And it will often be more convenient for the practitioner to craft the admissions in the form he or she considers most appropriate, possibly in a discursive letter, and at a time convenient to him or her.  Furthermore, the notices to admit usually track the allegations in the Application itself extremely closely, regardless of the admissions made during the investigation in correspondence which is annexed to the Application, so that the requirement to respond to the notice to admit is akin to a requirement to serve a defence, and the drafting, filing and service of the notice to admit generates a substantial cost on a party-party basis.

Finally, for some reason, no one ever seeks orders to serve notices to admit on the Commissioner.  If, for some reason, one were to consent to orders for the provision of a response to a notice to admit, it would seem appropriate to me to reserve a right to reciprocity. Continue reading “Legal Services Commissioner seeks to overturn privilege against penalties”

Executrixes’ denial of deceased’s alcoholism without any proper factual foundation results in indemnity costs order

Hartnett v Taylor [2014] VSC 501 was a Part IV claim for testators’ family maintenance.  The defendant executrixes said that the plaintiffs’ conduct led to estrangement from the deceased and to the deceased’s alcoholism.  The plaintiffs said that the deceased’s alcoholism led to their estrangement, and that is what Sifris J found.  The defendant executrixes’ contention was one which was contradicted by their own witness, the deceased’s doctor, who said that the deceased was an alcoholic before the estrangement with the plaintiffs.  Sifris J said:

’12 It is in my view clear that the defendants’ evidence and contentions in relation to the deceased’s alcohol consumption and the estrangement from the plaintiffs were made in wilful disregard of known facts and were allegations which ought never have been made. This provides a sufficient basis for an order for indemnity costs notwithstanding that the defendants are not personally liable for such costs.’

Regrettably, the plaintiffs do not appear to have argued the case under s. 18(d) of the Civil Procedure Act 2010.  I say ‘regrettably’ because it is desirable that a coherent and easily accessible body of law about the costs consequences of the making of allegations without a proper factual foundation grow up around the new statutory provision.

Then Sifris J denied the second defendant her costs of being separately represented, since there was no need for the two executrixes to have separate representation.

Client obtains Anton Piller order over solicitor’s hard disk in fees dispute

Ho v Fordyce [2014] NSWSC 1404 is a decision in an ex parte application of which the solicitor had no notice and did not participate. There is a dispute between solicitor and client in relation to fees.  The client contended that costs agreements relied on by the solicitor were ‘a recent invention’.  Given that the client asserts that there was no costs agreement, presumably the implication is that someone forged the documents relied on by the solicitor.  The client applied for an Anton Piller-like order allowing IT people to march into the solicitor’s office and copy certain contents of the solicitor’s hard disk in order to preserve evidence which may assist in proving the implied fraud.

In a brief judgment given ex tempore, Rein J granted the application, relying on a decision of the Victorian Supreme Court’s Justice McMillan. The question of the likelihood of privileged material being present on the firm’s computers is not something discussed in the reasons.  It may well be dealt with in the order, which is not reproduced in the reasons. I have never heard of any such application having been made by a client or granted against a solicitor in such circumstances before.

What his Honour said was:

’10  I do not wish to suggest that I am satisfied at this stage that there has been any false creation of documents. Rather there is a contention that it has occurred, and there is some support for that possibility in the evidence which has been presented. If it has occurred it will be difficult to prove and, if the secrecy of this application were not preserved until the point at which someone independent is at the office to obtain copies, the opportunity to establish that there has been recent creation (if that be the fact) will be lost.

11  In other words, for the plaintiff to have to present a normal application for discovery may act to the disadvantage of the plaintiff forensically and, accordingly, in circumstances where (a) the ambit of information which is sought is very narrow and (b) the consequences of the making of these orders will be of very limited effect, if it turns out that there has been no recent creation, weighs in favour of the making of the order.’

Jury verdict overturned by VSCA because of insinuation in cross-examination without adequate factual foundation

In Green v Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority [2014] VSCA 207, the Victorian Court of Appeal today overturned a jury’s verdict following a nine-day trial. There had been a miscarriage of justice occasioned by the manner in which the plaintiff was cross-examined by the defendant’s trial counsel.  He had made an allegation of recent invention involving a conspiracy between her and her solicitors to concoct a story. Continue reading “Jury verdict overturned by VSCA because of insinuation in cross-examination without adequate factual foundation”

WASCA on the kind of recklessness in making statements which amounts to conduct warranting discipline

Traditionally, the law of professional discipline has differed from the law of negligence in three profound ways.  First, its aim is the protection of the public (though the policy in favour of protecting the reputation of the profession grossly infects the purity of this proposition in most analyses).  Secondly, it is about personal wrongdoing.  Statute aside, there is no law of attributed liability in contrast to doctrines such as vicarious liability in the law of negligence.  And thirdly, simple as opposed to gross negligence was never considered to warrant discipline.  Things got messed up by the introduction into disciplinary statutes of a concept of unsatisfactory professional conduct defined in terms identical to the test for simple professional negligence.

Disciplinary tribunals (and, in my experience, disciplinary investigators and prosecutors) seem to lapse from time to time into the language of ‘should have known’ even outside the prosecution of that species of unsatisfactory professional conduct which is defined by reference to the test of simple professional negligence.  Two practitioners had to go to two Courts of Appeal to reverse decisions on dishonesty charges which were horribly infected by objective reasoning:  Legal Services Commissioner v Brereton [2011] VSCA 241 and Giudice v Legal Practitioners Complaints Committee [2014] WASCA 115.  Surprisingly, the former decision did not get a guernsey in the latter.  The law of recklessness is authoritatively restated in the three separate judgments in Giudice and I have set the whole lot out below along with some observations about Brereton’s Case. Continue reading “WASCA on the kind of recklessness in making statements which amounts to conduct warranting discipline”

Self-represented solicitor guilty of misconduct for breaching a rule expressed to regulate conduct when acting for a client

A Western Australian disciplinary case, Legal Profession Complaints Committee v CSA [2014] WASAT 57 is interesting in a number of ways. A criminal lawyer was the manager of a strata corporation.  She owned two units and the complainant the third. The complainant affixed an airconditioner to a wall which impeded on a common area.  She sought legal advice.  Her lawyers wrote a letter of demand to the complainant and charged a few thousand dollars.  The complainant did not fix the problem within the 14 days demanded, so the lawyer sued in the Magistrates’ Court.  The case was settled on the basis that the airconditioner would be relocated and the lawyer withdrew the proceeding without seeking costs.  When the complainant sold the third unit, the lawyer demanded that the complainant pay her the few thousand dollars her lawyers had charged her for the advice and the letter of demand.  She did so by a letter of demand drafted for her by another lawyer, though the involvement of this second lawyer only emerged at the disciplinary hearing. When the complainant did not pay up, she sued for them in her personal capacity.  The suit was found to have no legal foundation, but the lawyer said that she mistakenly thought that it did have a legal foundation, and that civil proceedings were not her thing. The case says:

1.  The suit was an abuse of process because there was no legal foundation for suing for the recovery of ‘pre-litigation’ legal costs.

2.  The lawyer’s conduct in threatening to bring and then bringing a suit which was an abuse of process was common law misconduct but was also a breach of a rule which prohibited lawyers from claiming on behalf of a client costs in a letter of demand for recovery of a debt because she was acting for herself in writing the letter (even though no legal letterhead or reference to her status as a lawyer was involved).

3.  There is no defence of honest and reasonable mistake in professional discipline.

4.  It is inappropriate for a disciplinary tribunal to make what the prosecutors described as ‘an incidental finding of dishonesty’ in relation to statements made during the investigation in respect of which no charge had been laid in the disciplinary proceeding.  Any such allegation ought to be the subject of a separate process (though the Tribunal then went ahead and found that the allegation was not made out on the Briginshaw standard anyway). Continue reading “Self-represented solicitor guilty of misconduct for breaching a rule expressed to regulate conduct when acting for a client”

Preliminary discovery and the need to have an adequate factual foundation before pleading fraud

As you will probably be sick by now of hearing, I suspect that the law relating to the need to have an adequate factual foundation before pleading fraud will be resorted to more frequently given the new prominence given to it by s. 18(d) of the Civil Procedure Act 2010, the Court of Appeal’s admonition to inferior courts as to the need to consider these matters of their own motion, and the new (or at least newly prominent) remedies for breaches of overarching obligations such as that referred to in s. 18(d).  The new prominence of these laws may make applications for preliminary discovery more frequent, though I must confess it remains a mystery to me why so few preliminary discovery applications are made in general.  It may also make courts more inclined to grant such orders. In Pioneer Energy Holdings v Seth [2014] NSWSC 492, McDougall J granted preliminary discovery under a rule not dissimilar to Victoria’s SCR 32.05 to a prospective plaintiff from prospective defendants to a suit claiming damages for fraud, making reference (at [66]) to s. s 347 of the Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW).  Section 347 has some of the characteristics of s. 18(d), albeit only in relation to damages claims.  His Honour said, in the course of an ex tempore judgment:

Continue reading “Preliminary discovery and the need to have an adequate factual foundation before pleading fraud”

Section 18(d) of the Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic)

Section 18(d) of the Civil Procedure Act 2010 requires litigants and their lawyers alike not to make claims in civil proceedings, or defend such claims, unless ‘on the factual and legal material available to [them] at the time of making the claims’ the claim or defence has ‘a proper basis’.  A court may make any order it considers appropriate in the interests of justice if satisfied that a person has breached s. 18(d): s. 29 and may take any contravention into account in exercising any of its powers, including specifically in relation to costs: s. 28.

As Derham AsJ said in Matthews v SPI Electricity Pty Ltd (No 2) (below):
‘The overarching obligations [including that in s. 18(d)]:

(a)          apply to any legal practitioner or any law practice acting for or on behalf of a party: Civil Procedure Act10(1)(b), (c);

(b)          apply in respect of the conduct of any aspect of a civil proceeding, including, but not limited to any interlocutory application or interlocutory proceeding: Civil Procedure Act11(a);

(c)          do not override any duty or obligation of a legal practitioner to a client to the extent that those duties and obligations and the overarching obligations can operate consistently: Civil Procedure Act13(1); and

(d)          must be complied with by a legal practitioner or a law practice engaged by, or on behalf of, a client in connection with a civil proceeding despite any obligation the legal practitioner or the law practice has to act in accordance with the instructions or wishes of the client: Civil Procedure Act13(2).

In this very workmanlike post, I simply summarise the not particularly illuminating jurisprudence to have emerged around this new provision so far. Continue reading “Section 18(d) of the Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic)”

Rules relating to unjustified allegations of fraud, etc.

This post, based on research by Zoe Dealehr, collects together the various Bar conduct rules around Australia relating to the requirement of a proper factual foundation for making allegations of criminality, fraud and other serious misconduct as well as for allegations in litigation more generally.

First of all, the relevant Victorian rules are set out.  They are more detailed than the other states’ and territories’ rules.  Apart from Tasmania’s, the rest of Australia’s conduct rules for barristers are almost uniform and are similar to, but different from Victoria’s.

Tasmania appears to have no conduct rules on the subject, but it is said that it is soon to adopt the national rules which are the foundation for the non-Victorian rules.

Continue reading “Rules relating to unjustified allegations of fraud, etc.”

The costs consequences of failing to prove a responsibly advanced allegation of fraud

The irresponsible advancement in litigation of allegations of fraud undoubtedly triggers the jurisdiction to award indemnity costs and even to make personal costs orders: White Industries (Qld) Pty Ltd v Flower & Hart (1998) 156 ALR 169, approved on appeal at (1999) 87 FCR 134, discussed in this post.

But what about responsibly advanced, but ultimately unsuccessful, allegations of fraud? In a leading case, Woodward J said:

‘It is sometimes said that [special] costs can be awarded where charges of fraud have been made and not sustained; but in all the cases I have considered, there has been some further factor which has influenced the exercise of the court’s discretion: for example, the allegations of fraud have been made  knowing them to be false, or they have been irrelevant to the issues between the parties’.[1]

That statement has been followed subsequently and, in my view, very likely represents the law in Australia.[2]

Nevertheless, it is possible to find statements made, apparently without consideration of Woodward J’s observation, in cases[3] and commentaries which appear to say that the mere failure of a fraud allegation justifies departure from the usual rules of thumb in to costs. Professor Gino Dal Pont’s outstanding Law of Costs speaks of ‘the “rule” that a party alleging but failing to prove fraud is deprived of costs even if successful in the action generally’ without citing Australian authority, before suggesting that it is too broadly formulated.[4]

Conduct rules often require lawyers in Australia to make allegations of criminality, fraud and other serious misconduct only after having warned their clients of the consequences of doing so and obtained specific instructions to go ahead and make the allegations (e.g. Victorian Bar Conduct Rules, r. 34).  Quite what such an advice ought to contain is, I suspect, not immediately apparent to most lawyers.  Conceivably, uncertainty about the content of this obligation, and fear about costs consequences even in the absence of misconduct on the part of those responsibly advancing fraud allegations, are matters which contribute to allegations of fraud being made so rarely.  It would be helpful if the law in relation to the consequences of failing in a responsibly advanced serious allegation were clarified and more widely disseminated throughout the profession. Continue reading “The costs consequences of failing to prove a responsibly advanced allegation of fraud”

Clyne v NSW Bar Association: the leading case on unfounded allegations

Clyne v New South Wales Bar Association (1960) 104 CLR 186; [1960] HCA 40 is a unanimous decision of the Dixon Court confirming the striking off of a Sydney barrister, Peter Clyne, for making unfounded and serious allegations on behalf of a husband against the wife’s solicitor in matrimonial litigation for the admitted purpose of getting the wife’s solicitor out of the case.  Those allegations were in fact made in a private prosecution by the husband of the wife’s solicitor for maintenance. Reading the decision, one might think that striking off the rolls was a relatively harsh penalty by today’s standards for the conduct recorded, especially since his client succeeded at committal in having the wife’s solicitor presented for trial.  And also if one believes Mr Clyne’s autobiography where he asserted:

‘Particulars given by the New South Wales Bar Association made it quite clear that it was not part of the charge to say that my advice to prosecute was wrong, or improper.  Indeed, as I have mentioned before, the advice to prosecute Mann was given in writing, by the eminent and respected Sydney QC, Mr Newton, who later became (and still is) a judge of the New South Wales District Court; and no one has ever criticized Mr Newton for his advice.’

But Mr Clyne had done it before and been sternly warned (see CLR 202) and was unrepentant to the moment he was struck off. Further, he was absolutely one out of the box (he will be the subject of a further blog post) and was no doubt regarded as an excrescence on the legal system to be excised at almost any cost.  He went on to irritate the authorities as a professional tax evader and unashamed advocate of tax evasion, writing many books on the subject and others (e.g. Adventures in Tax Avoidance, How Not to Pay Any Taxes, Guilty But Insane) while living a decadent lifestyle which hopped, first class, between hotels in Sydney and his native Vienna.  Like George Herscu, one of the villains in White Industries v Flower & Hart, Clyne spent time in jail, and only avoided spending more time by fleeing America without a passport while on appeal bail.  He seems to have been intelligent and to have had enough charm to be married to a Welsh entomologist who also wrote many rather different books (e.g. Silkworms, All About Ants, and Plants of Prey).  But his autobiography (Outlaw Among Lawyers; the Peter Clyne Story, Cassell Australia, 1981) reveals a thoroughly dishonest if colourful character with very little if any regard for the law. Continue reading “Clyne v NSW Bar Association: the leading case on unfounded allegations”

White Industries v Flower & Hart: unfounded allegations of fraud

This post is a case note of Justice Goldberg’s famous decision in White Industries (Qld) Pty Ltd v Flower & Hart (1998) 156 ALR 169; [1998] FCA 806 as well as of associated decisions and surrounding controversy.  Because it is what I am working on at the moment, it concentrates on that part of the case which relates to the unjustified pleading settled by Ian Callinan QC and signed by his instructor Michael Meadows, alleging that the builder lied to the developer in relation to the cost of building a shopping centre just north of Brisbane.  It’s a big post, to kick off the year.

Facts (not all drawn from the judgments)

George Herscu died just before Christmas, aged 85. He was the alter ego of a property development group headed up by the Hersfield Development Corporation. According to 4 Corners, he was the biggest property developer in the country. According to The Australian, he lived in a Toorak mansion, owned a Melbourne Cup winner, and was once the third richest man in Australia after Robert Holmes a Court and Kerry Packer, one place ahead of Alan Bond.  He was a millionnaire by 30, and made and lost a fortune of $500 million.  He left Australia for California in 1997 and rebuilt substantial wealth.  Towards the end of his life, he was engaged in bitter litigation with his son, who described him as ready to spend whatever is needed to “crush anyone that stands in his way”.  Ironically, given what follows, Mr Herscu’s lawyers accused the son of mis-using the deposition process.  According to The Australian, they said:

‘Your clients’ continued insistence on trying to push an 80-year-old man with hypertension, a heart condition, failing hearing and many other health problems into a deposition room – having already deposed him for 27 hours – is shocking and wrong.  The only conclusion one can reasonably draw from your clients’ posture is that their litigation strategy involves attempting to subject George Herscu to so much stress and pressure he simply dies. To use the tools of discovery for this purpose is reprehensible, and indeed revolting.’

Very alarmingly, he was asked in those depositions about allegations that he had watered down the beer in a pub. Continue reading “White Industries v Flower & Hart: unfounded allegations of fraud”

The civil and disciplinary consequences of making an allegation of serious wrongdoing without a proper foundation

Friends, I need your help, again.  Certain promises I made to write about and present on the civil and disciplinary consequences of making allegations of serious wrongdoing (e.g. fraud) without a proper foundation are coming home to roost.  I’m looking at:

  • disciplinary sanction of lawyers via Legal Services Commissioner, etc. prosecution;
  • personal costs orders against lawyers;
  • costs consequences for parties (common law in relation to exercise of the unfettered discretion re solicitor-client rather than party-party costs and displacing the presumption that costs follow the event where allegations of fraud are not made out, and Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic.)); and
  • what is a ‘proper foundation’?

My miserable situation in this season of sun, frivolity and child-minding is a need to work out what these consequences are so that I can provide learned disquisition.  In the process I have learnt something about Dr Peter Clyne, the protagonist of Clyne v NSW Bar Association (1960) 104 CLR 186; [1960] HCA 40.  What a wonderful addition to my knowledge of the rogues’ gallery of which I consider myself a connoisseur; I even bought his autobiography on eBay today but his ‘How Not to Pay Your Debts’ is still available.  The Hikers described his conduct during the course of an ‘orgy of litigation’ between his client, the husband, and the wife as ‘irresponsible’, ‘mischievous’, ‘objectionable’, indefensible, ‘inexcusable’, and, rather wonderfully I think, ‘monstrous’.  A unanimous Dixon Court confirmed the good doctor’s striking off.  You can read about his life afterwards, including as a Magistrate in Zambia, here, and possibly less reliably, here.

So here is a general call-out for good authorities on these questions, especially decisions which really assist in understanding what a ‘proper factual foundation’ is, since many authorities relate to allegations which are so obviously unsustainable that they do not really illuminate where the line lies between the merely poor and the truly discreditable argument (Clyne), or proceed on the basis of admissions (AM v Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Authority [2010] NTSC 02), or are fantastically complicated (the case just referred to and Victorian Bar Inc v CEM QC [2006] VCAT 1417).  I would also be very grateful for any detailed commentaries on this aspect of the conduct rules for solicitors and barristers alike, and Australian decisions in relation to costs (since many of those cited by Dal Pont are Canadian or English).

Legal Services Commissioner’s obligations of fairness

I have previously reported Justice Finkelstein’s views about the obligations of those who prosecute proceedings for a penalty (‘‘I would hold that a regulatory body that brings a civil proceeding to recover a penalty is under an obligation similar to that owed by a prosecutor to an accused.’). Barristers who are briefed by the Legal Services Commissioner in disciplinary proceedings have the same obligations as barristers briefed to prosecute criminal proceedings.  But until tonight I was unaware that VCAT’s predecessor, the Legal Profession Tribunal, had actually indicated that the regulator himself (as opposed to his lawyers) owe obligations.  In Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd v Kaine [2001] VLPT 16, Senior Member Howell,  Victoria’s most experienced decision maker in legal disciplinary matters, said of the Law Institute (which was for a while formally named ‘Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd’) that it owed:

‘the obligations normally owed by a prosecutor, such as the obligation to bring to the attention of the Tribunal or to the attention of the practitioner any evidence that might be favourable to the practitioner’.

Continue reading “Legal Services Commissioner’s obligations of fairness”

VSCA restates practitioners’ duty of honesty to Court

In Forster v. Legal Services Board [2013] VSCA 73, Kyrou AJA, with whom Weinberg and Harper JJA agreed, restated briefly the law which requires lawyers to be absolutely honest in their dealings with Courts:

‘161 In Meek v Fleming,[85] Holroyd Pearce LJ agreed with the proposition that while a lawyer must not knowingly mislead the Court as to the facts or the law, he or she may put such matters as he or she believes will best advance the client’s case.[86] A party need not reveal something to the discredit of that party. However, this does not mean that the party can by implication falsely pretend that a particular state of affairs exists, and knowing that the court has been misled with respect to a material matter, foster and confirm the misrepresentation through answers given by the party.[87] A lawyer who is a party to the presentation of evidence or the making of a statement to the court that is partly true, but which does not amount to the whole truth, can create a misleading impression to the Court and thereby breach his or her duty to the Court. Once a misleading impression has been created, even if innocently, the lawyer has an obligation to correct that impression as soon as he or she becomes aware of the true position.[88] That obligation continues until judgment is given.[89] Continue reading “VSCA restates practitioners’ duty of honesty to Court”

WA soli disciplined for recklessly misleading Family Court

Update, 22 September 2011:  Here is the penalty decision.  The Complaints Committee argued for a report to the Supreme Court recommending striking off, but the Tribunal found that was not necessary and imposed a $20,000 on top of a costs order of about $18,000. But for the fact that the former solicitor was, at the time of the decision, a Registrar of the Family Court, the Tribunal would have considered a suspension, but as the job did not require a practising certificate, such an order would have no practical effect.

Original post: Western Australia’s State Administrative Tribunal has put out a substantial decision about misleading the court by silence: Legal Profession Complaints Committee and SMV [2011] WASAT 118.  Something tells me I won’t get around to blogging it properly any time soon, so here is the link and the Tribunal’s own summary:

‘The Legal Profession Complaints Committee made a number of allegations against a legal practitioner, Ms Sally Vanderfeen, of professional misconduct in connection with obtaining and attempting to implement consent orders in the family court for the purposes of defeating a claim to specific performance by a third party in relation to one of the properties the subject of the consent orders.

The conduct essentially concerned failure to notify the Court or the third party of the orders and of the practitioner’s client’s interest in the property pursuant to those orders. The Complaints Committee also made an allegation that the practitioner had misled the Committee in the context of the Committee’s enquires into the relevant events.

Ms Vanderfeen acknowledged that aspects of her conduct involved ‘serious errors of judgment’, but denied that her conduct was designed to defeat the third party’s claims. The Tribunal reviewed the documentary records of relevant events and concluded that they established that Ms Vanderfeen’s actions were motivated by an intention to improve the prospects that the third party would not pursue a claim for specific performance, and that the Complaints Committee’s allegations in relation to those matters were established.’

Lawyers’ Civil Procedure Act duty to correct opponents’ misapprehensions

A judge of the Supreme Court of NSW has reiterated that litigation is not a game, and foreshadowed the possibility of a personal costs order against lawyers for a respondent who took improper advantage of their opponent’s ignorance of a provision in the Corporations Act, 2001. The provision terminates proceedings for winding up in insolvency 6 months after their issue, unless a court otherwise orders.  They took advantage by agreeing to proposed consent orders providing for an interlocutory timetable pursuant to which the proceedings would be brought to a premature end before trial, without pointing that pitfall out to the other side.  Justice Richard White’s comments in
In the matter of Fratelli’s Fresh Pasta Pty Ltd [2011] NSWSC 576 at [18] to [26] follow below.  Note that his Honour expressly drew upon s. 56 of the Civil Procedure Act, 2005 (NSW), which provides:

‘(1) The overriding purpose of this Act and of rules of court, in their application to a civil dispute or civil proceedings, is to facilitate the just, quick and cheap resolution of the real issues in the dispute or proceedings.

(4) Each of the following persons must not, by their conduct, cause a party to a civil dispute or civil proceedings to be put in breach of a duty identified in subsection (3) or (3A) [to further the overriding purpose and to take reasonable steps to resolve or narrow the issues in dispute]:

(a) any solicitor or barrister representing the party in the dispute or proceedings

(5) The court may take into account any failure to comply with subsection (3), (3A) or (4) in exercising a discretion with respect to costs.’ Continue reading “Lawyers’ Civil Procedure Act duty to correct opponents’ misapprehensions”

Federal Court sets aside bankruptcy notice used for debt collection against solvent individuals as abuse of process

Without first formally demanding payment of a debt, creditors served a bankruptcy notice.  The debtors were insolvency practitioners and there was no suggestion that they were insolvent.  Federal Magistrate Raphael set aside the notice on the basis it was an abuse of process, issued with a purpose not of making the respondents bankrupt but of embarrassing them. His Honour said:

‘The proper purpose of seeking a sequestration order against the estate of a debtor is so that a debtor, who is unable to pay his debts as and when they fall due, should have his affairs controlled for the benefit of all his creditors and not just specific ones.  Allied to this purpose is the prevention of the debtor incurring further obligations which he will not be able to meet. It is a public purpose. The bankruptcy process is not to be used for private ends.’

On appeal, the decision was confirmed by the Federal Court’s Justice Marshall.  In Lord v Rankine [2011] FMCA 668, at [20] – [34] (despite the numbering below) his Honour said:

Continue reading “Federal Court sets aside bankruptcy notice used for debt collection against solvent individuals as abuse of process”