Lodging a civil complaint with the Legal Services Commissioner limits you to compensation of $25,000 per complaint

First of all, happy new year!

The take-home point of this post is that if you lodge a civil complaint (e.g. a pecuniary loss dispute or a costs dispute) with the Legal Services Commissioner, you limit the amount of compensation you can get in VCAT to $25,000 because of s. 4.3.2(1)(c) of the Legal Profession Act, 2004. That prevents the commencement of proceedings in relation to the subject matter of the complaint until the complaint has been finally determined, or dismissed, by which time it will often be res judicata, at least in those cases where the final determination is by VCAT or the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal (subject, perhaps, to (i) the operation of s. 4.2.14(2), which is what the Court of Appeal calls the ‘two bites of the cherry’ provision, and (ii) the possibility of adding a Fair Trading Act, 1999 cause of action to a proceeding originally instituted in VCAT under the Legal Profession Act, 2004, discussed below).  In this touchy feely win win alternative dispute resolution Civil Procedure Act, 2010 world, it is apparently anomalous that those who choose to travel to VCAT’s Legal Practice List via the obvious alternative dispute resolution channel (i.e. via a civil complaint to the Commissioner’s dispute resolution jurisdiction) are penalised so severely in comparison with those who proceed immediately to litigation in that List by invoking the parallel jurisdiction of the Fair Trading Act, 1999. Continue reading “Lodging a civil complaint with the Legal Services Commissioner limits you to compensation of $25,000 per complaint”

60 days for referring pecuniary loss disputes to VCAT extendable

I was reminded when reading Sibonna Nominees v R Legal [2009] VCAT 893 that the 60 day period after the Bureau de Spank gives a punter a ticket under s. 4.3.7 of the Legal Profession Act, 2004 to enter VCAT for adjudication of an unresolved civil complaint of the species ‘pecuniary loss dispute’ is extendable under s. 126(1) of the VCAT Act, 1998 (‘[VCAT], on application by any person or on its own initiative, may extend any time limit fixed by or under an enabling enactment for the commencement of a proceeding.’)  Well, to be honest, which I’m trying to be more and more, ‘reminded’ is a euphemism.  Anyway, sitting there, just behind s. 127 which I have been skirmishing about in VCAT just this week, lay s. 126.  No doubt I should have known about it, but the reason I did not is interesting.  No one does what Sibonna Nominees was doing any more.  These kind of ‘pecuniary loss disputes’ in the old Legal Profession Tribunal were my bread and butter for a while, when I was a solicitor.  Now, punters generally just go under the Fair Trading Act 1999‘s consumer and trader dispute jurisdiction: s. 107ff. Continue reading “60 days for referring pecuniary loss disputes to VCAT extendable”

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”

Is interest a form of relief VCAT can grant?

In a long-wnded way, I tentatively suggest that, so long as the applicant has the sense to invoke s. 108 of the Fair Trading Act, 1999, then penalty interest is available under the Supreme Court Act, 1986, just like in the Supreme Court, so long as the dispute is a consumer-trader dispute. That is, a dispute between a purchaser or potential purchaser and a supplier or potential supplier of goods and services, broadly defined. There are some causes of action which come with specific interest provisions too, like the one attached to costs disputes under the Legal Profession Act, 2004.

Continue reading “Is interest a form of relief VCAT can grant?”

VCAT’s Vice-Prez confirms lawyers do not engage in trade or commerce

In Walsh v PJCC&A Pty [2008] VCAT 962, beneficiaries of an estate were critical of the testator’s lawyers before death. They became his executors after his death, and appointed the firm they worked for as their solicitors. The beneficiaries sued the firm, and its solicitor-executors for unconscionable conduct and misleading or deceptive conduct. Their beef was the level of fees charged by the firm in the context of the executors having left all of the work of the administration of the estate to the firm as their solicitors, and yet having scooped up the 3% executors commission provided for in the will. Judge Harbison summarily dismissed the whole case principally on the basis that when they engage in professional work, lawyers do not engage in trade or commerce, as required by both causes of action under the Fair Trading Act, 1999. The trade or commerce requirement was a jurisdictional issue, she said, for the applicants to establish at the outset of the case, not something for the respondents to establish the absence of. It was permissible, and quite possible, to determine the question by reference to the particulars of dispute so long as they were articulated sufficiently.

Interestingly, despite numerous strike out applications, a professional negligence claim against solicitors  pleaded as a misleading and deceptive conduct case has survived in Western Australia, though it is not clear that anyone has taken the point that lawyers do not engage in trade or commerce in that case: Alpine Holdings Pty Ltd v Feinauer [2008] WASCA 85.

Continue reading “VCAT’s Vice-Prez confirms lawyers do not engage in trade or commerce”

More cases

I only just caught up with the fact that the Court of Appeal has overturned Justice Gillard’s decision in Kabourakis v Medical Board of Victoria [2005] VSC 493, the subject of an earlier post. See [2006] VSC 301.

VCAT’s Vice President Harbison, sitting in the Legal Practice List for the first time I am aware of, has contributed what appears to be a most interesting addition to the authorities about whether solicitors engage in trade and commerce for the purposes of the Fair Trading Act, 1999 (and, by analogy, of the Trade Practices Act, 1974), and whether solicitors may ever be sued under the Fair Trading Act, 1999. As to which, see this earlier post. The decision is Walsh v PJCC&A Pty [2008] VCAT 962 which I will certainly be posting a detailed analysis of.

Then a NSW decision has illustrated again the problem of sloppy regulators failing to consider whether what purports to be a complaint received by them is in fact a complaint as defined by the Act which regulates them (an allegation in both of the cases noted here). This time it was NSW’s Legal Services Commissioner, Steve Mark, getting bashed up by the NSW Administrative Appeals Tribunal’s Legal Services Division in Legal Services Commissioner v SG [2008] NSWADT 48:

’64 As stated, Mr Mark determined that a complaint had been made of deliberate charging of grossly excessive amounts of costs, when no such complaint had been made.

65 Without any further evidence or effort to obtain a valid expert opinion, the LSC instituted the complaint and brought this matter before the Tribunal on the equivocal opinion expressed by Mr McIntyre. Samantha Gulliver investigated the complaint on behalf of Mr Mark, however what, if anything, resulted from such investigation was not placed before the Tribunal. Continue reading “More cases”

VCAT rewrites unrepresented man’s misconceived application

Slobodan Catovic did not want to pay his solicitor’s bill. He misconceivedly invoked the Legal Profession Act, 2004 provision which allows clients to apply to set aside costs agreements, but that is not what he wanted to do. Senior Member Howell satisfied himself that Mr Catovic had intended to bring an application under the Fair Trading Act, 1999, and ordered that the application be treated as a small claim under that Act. He even told the Registrar to refund Mr Catovic the difference between the fee on an application to set aside a costs agreement and the paltry fee payable on the institution of a small claim under the Fair Trading Act, 1999. See Catovic v H Solicitors [2008] VCAT 840. On the propriety of the cross-fertilisation of VCAT’s jurisdictions, see also this post.