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”

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”

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 obligation not to allege ‘fraud’ without an appropriate evidentiary foundation: what is ‘fraud’?

Solicitors and barristers are obliged not to make allegations of criminality, fraud or other serious wrongdoing in ‘court documents’ without an adequate factual foundation. The rule for Victorian barristers is rule 34. This post explores what ‘court documents’ are, what ‘fraud’ means in this context, and what an adequate factual foundation is, in part by looking again at AM v Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Authority [2010] NTSC 02, treated in the previous post, a decision of the Full Court of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.  It also notes a bizarre anomaly between the rules which govern Victorian and other states’ solicitors and between the rules which govern Victorian solicitors and Victorian barristers in this regard. Continue reading “The obligation not to allege ‘fraud’ without an appropriate evidentiary foundation: what is ‘fraud’?”

$19,500 fine for making complaint against lawyer without adequate evidentiary foundation

A Full Court of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory delivered judgment in AM v Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Authority [2010] NTSC 02 a week ago. The Darwin lawyer, AM, lodged a complaint with the NT Law Society alleging that a competitor firm, Cridlands, which used to act for her client, had acted in the face of a conflict of duties.  That complaint was dismissed.  The Law Society then turned the lens on the author of the complaint and investigated her for making allegations of serious impropriety without a proper evidentiary foundation.  She was successfully prosecuted and her appeal failed. The Supreme Court confirmed the decision of the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal (here and, in relation to penalty, here), finding the lawyer guilty of professional misconduct.  According to the NT News, the lawyer was ordered publicly to apologise to the lawyers about whom the complaint was made, complete professional conduct and ethics courses, and ordered to pay a fine of $19,500.  The costs bill is presumably very high.

The duty which was breached was formulated at [141] as follows:

‘the obligation carried by a legal practitioner is to take care when making serious allegations of impropriety against another on behalf of a client. The obligation arises not only when making allegations or preparing pleadings in a court proceeding but in other situations where the practitioner is protected by privilege and, indeed, in all circumstances, to maintain standards of decency and fairness. The appropriate standard of care is exercised by ensuring that there is evidence upon which allegations might be made and in the light of that evidence by seeking specific instructions in relation to the allegations.’

Continue reading “$19,500 fine for making complaint against lawyer without adequate evidentiary foundation”