Conflict of duties and the limited retainer

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

Issac’s holiday; plea bargaining in disciplinary charges examined

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

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

Robyn Tampoe, Schapelle Corby’s solicitor

Update, 10 June 2009: Mr Tampoe has been struck off the roll of solicitors.

Update, 7 July 2008: Watch the video of Tampoe slagging off his client here.

Original post: Lawyers and their regulators should care about the Corby case, because at the relevant time, a lot of people loved Schapelle and Schapelle does not now much like her lawyers. One of them has hit back, calling the Corbys “the biggest pile of trash I have ever come across in my life”. People will think this is normal, or at least the tip of the iceberg. And much confusion seems to be going around about Mr Tampoe’s fabrication of a defence for Corby. For giving this interview, and saying this, I condemn Mr Tampoe, who is no longer a solicitor, with all my fibre. What I question below is whether the media have got their reportage of his claim to have completely fabricated the defence right — if he means what I imagine he means, I say — so what? Whether or not the media have got it right, I reckon his comments might well harm his former client. They could have been personally deeply hurtful, they could affect her treatment in jail, they could affect any claim for clemency she might in the future make, and they could affect the result of the prisoner exchange treaty negotiations underway between the Australian and Indonesian governments, or the speed with which they progress. Continue reading “Robyn Tampoe, Schapelle Corby’s solicitor”

Pastor-solicitor-property developer profiled in the Sunday Age

The latest lawyer profile in a weekend zine is the Sunday Age‘s portrait of a fundamentalist preacher cum solicitor cum property developer’s stoush with some parishoners who say he allowed them to have a part of a property investment which would yield profits over the one year of the investment of 25% to 45%, only for it to go bad in ways they’re not entirely sanguine about. He used to be a Melbourne solicitor, and is a graduate of the school of Henry Kaye. Notwithstanding his status as a man of the cloth, the portrait is not quite as hagiographical as some of the other portraits mentioned in this earlier post identifying the mainstream media lawyer profile phenomenon, and therefore makes it all the more worth the read. For example, I like the way the pastor-solicitor-property developer’s wife Lorilea is said by the Sunday Age to have suggested the parishoner-investor rid himself of his undue focus on things material and stop fighting ‘tooth and nail for those things that rust and moth doth corrupt.’ I just love that use of ‘moth’ with ‘doth’, though credit must go to Matthew at chapter 6 verse 20.

Negligent misstatement limitation period lecture

Update, 20 November 2008: The latest decision is Pegasus Management Holdings S.C.A. v Ernst & Young (a firm) [2008] EWHC 2720 (Ch).  A CMS Cameron McKenna Law Now note may be read here.

Original post: The Law Institute is putting on a lecture at lunchtime on 24 June 2008 by an ex-megafirms lawyer who has gone boutique, Margot Clarkson. It will be about the very specific topic of limitation periods for negligent misstatement cases (though somewhat oddly, the case featured in the flyer, Wardley v Western Australia (1992) 175 CLR 514 is a pure misleading and deceptive conduct case).  I treated that topic at some length in an article imaginatively titled ‘Legal Professional Liability Part II’ at (2001) 9 Torts Law Journal 1 (I have reproduced the relevant bit below), and have blogged about it from time to time since (see these posts).  It’s a difficult topic, and such a seminar is welcome. It costs $80 for LIV members and $160 for non-members.

This is what I said in the article: Continue reading “Negligent misstatement limitation period lecture”

2nd edition of Professional Liability in Australia reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

Arbitrators slice $40 million off plaintiff lawyers’ breast implant proceedings fees

22 July Update: what may be the first ever legal blog, and without doubt one of the best, Overlawyered has  a link to the arbitrator’s ruling, and links to some old posts dealing with the interlocutory stages of the case. And here’s Law.com’s article.

Houston plaintiff lawyer John O’Quinn has been ordered to repay clients $40 million in legal fees after he was found to have charged his clients for bar association fees, overheads, and flowers as part of a ‘general expenses fee’ of 1.5% of the settlement. Ironically, his former clients ganged up on him. In a class action. They wanted all the fees he charged them back — estimated at $0.66 billion:

‘A Texas Supreme Court case from 1999 opened O’Quinn up to the possibility of having to pay back all the collected legal fees. That case, Burrow v. Arce, held that if a lawyer breaks his fiduciary duty to a client by putting his own interest above the client’s, he can lose part or all of his fee — even if the lawyer did a good job.’

I’ve noted that case before. Scary. Not that he got away without penalty, exactly:

‘The order says that O’Quinn, through three legal entities under which he has practiced law, must pay back [AU$12] million he improperly charged clients and a [AU$28.5] million penalty because he broke his contract with them.

The latest on fiduciary relationships

In the Citigroup Case referred to in the next post, Justice Jacobsen summarised the law relating to fiduciary duties. I have reproduced the whole of the relevant passage, which includes a restatement of the law (at [297]ff) relating to solicitors’ fiduciary duties to give prospective clients full disclosure about the disadvantages of time costing if such a course is proposed.  In my experience, those principles lie gathering dust in real life, and it is a harsh decision maker who trots them out to shaft some poor solicitor who really gets up his nose.  In summary, the principle is:

‘298 A solicitor who wishes to enter into a time charging costs agreement with the client must make full disclosure to the client of all the implications of such an agreement: see Foreman at435-437 per Mahoney JA; Re Morris Fletcher v Cross’ Bill of Costs [1997] 2 Qd R 228 at 243 per Fryberg J; McNamara Business & Property Law v Kasmeridis [2007] SASC 90 at [28] – [31] per Doyle CJ.

299 This principle applies whether or not the costs agreement is made before the solicitor is instructed: see Symonds v Raphael (1998) 148 FLR 171 at 186-187 per Baker and Burton JJ; see also McNamara at [38] per Doyle CJ.’

But here’s the entire exegisis of the law of fiduciary relationships, as applied specifically, to the general case of adviser and client: Continue reading “The latest on fiduciary relationships”

Updates: big words, Texan legal writing, conflicts of duties

In my post “Judge uses big word”, I commented on President Mason’s use of “tergiversation”. Now David Starkoff at Inchoate has noted another’s analysis of the odds of each of the High Court judges other than Justice Kirby being responsible for the appearance of “epexegetical” (which seems to mean “explanatory in a way supplementary to the principal or original explanation”) in a decision on migration. (10/1 odds: Justice Gummow.) Love how the judiciary tends to save up these little diamonds of language for those least likely to have the resources to look them up.

And, by way of update to my post “Finally, some scholarship on Australian lawyers’ conflict of duties”, here is a long article on conflicts of duties in America, “I’m All Verklempt!” by Kendall M. Gray et. al., including a long analysis of the Yanks’ position on Chinese walls. The relationship between establishing a conflict of duties and the entitlement to compensation of one of the people to whom the conflicting duties is owed is a bit complicated in Australia. It certainly does not follow that every breach of fiduciary duty gives rise to a right to money in the victim from the lawyer. But in Texas, there is a principle of fee forfeiture which applies in cases of clear and serious breaches of fiduciary duty, a remedy born in Burrow v. Arce 997 S.W.2d 229 (Tex. 1999). Where an attorney was found to have grossly overcharged, fee forfeiture was imposed so that the attorney lost all his fees rather than just those which exceeded a reasonable fee: In re Allied Physicians Group, P.A., No. 397-31267-BJH-11, Civ. A.3:04-CV-0765-G, 2004 WL 2965001, at *5 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 15, 2004) (unpublished), aff’d, 166 F. App’x 745 (5th Cir. 2006).

Mr Gray’s style cannot be described as stuffy, and exemplifies what is good about Texas, namely plain talking: Continue reading “Updates: big words, Texan legal writing, conflicts of duties”

No absolute bar in England to representing and opposing same client in two different matters

Goubran shares my view that a solicitor can act for and against the one man at the same time. Just not in relation to the same thing. In fact, there is a degree of relation which makes it impermissible, and Goubran sets out the practically meaningless judicial utterances on the test for the requisite degree of relation. He does so by tackling the following passage from Bolkiah v KPMG [1999] 2 AC 222, 234 (Lord Millett) which I have always thought to be overarching: Continue reading “No absolute bar in England to representing and opposing same client in two different matters”

Role of professional conduct rules in conflict of duties injunctions

On the relationship of the conduct rules to injunctions to restrain lawyers acting in the face of a conflict of duties, Goubran cites some useful authorities. I have always been astonished by what I thought was the Australian courts’ universal and complete disregard in these kinds of applications to the professional conduct rules’ conflicts provisions. All the moreso since the introduction of the rule dealing with current-client and past-client confidential information conflicts was introduced into the Law Institute’s rules of conduct for solicitors. But Goubran’s diligence has turned up the following judicial comments on the use to be made of the rules: Continue reading “Role of professional conduct rules in conflict of duties injunctions”

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.

Solicitor-executor’s work not legal work

Patterson v S [1998] VLPT 11 is a decision of the Legal Profession Tribunal dealing with a sole practitioner who was the executor of a priest’s will. It held that executors’ work carried out by an executor who happens to be a solicitor is not legal work, and so fees for the work were not within a clause in the will entitling professional executors to charge their “usual or reasonable charges”. Continue reading “Solicitor-executor’s work not legal work”

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”

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”

Depressed partner who stole $275,000 gets suspended sentence

R v G*rant [2006] VSC 235
A property lawyer who was a partner in a two partner, 3 office firm, became depressed and failed to lodge tax returns for 9 years. When the ATO cracked down on lawyers, he lodged the returns late, and became liable for about $200,000 in tax, interest, and penalties.

He stole from his clients’ monies he held in trust. He forged documents. He mortgaged his elderly parents’ unit without their knowledge in a flagrant breach of their trust. He paid the proceeds to the ATO. The Law Institute commenced an audit of his trust account following a complaint. Shortly afterwards, he made a very serious attempt at suicide which was averted only through his wife’s intuition. He voluntarily surrendered his practising certificate. He confessed everthing to the Law Institute, and was genuinely contrite. He had given up the law and found a job as a telemarketer.

A year after voluntarily surrendering it, VCAT suspended his practising certificate for 5 years and ordered that he apply thereafter only for an employee’s practising certificate for a further 5 years. That was in March. At some stage, the Fidelity Fund paid back the clients. To the criminal charges, he pleaded guilty. Strong pyschiatric evidence of very profound clinical depression was adduced. The sentencing judge accepted the solicitor’s genuine intention eventually to repay the whole amount paid out by the Fidelity Fund. The solicitor’s counsel, Lex Lasry QC instructed by Rob Stary & Associates, successfully submitted that the sentence — 3 years’ imprisonment — should be wholely suspended: because the need for specific deterrence was nil, because of the early guilty plea and full cooperation, because of the remorse and genuine intention to repay the Fidelity Fund, and because a person with a serious mental illness is not an appropriate vehicle for general deterrence. As to the legal principles involved, Habersberger J said: Continue reading “Depressed partner who stole $275,000 gets suspended sentence”

Fiduciary duties and the sophisticated client

Gee do plaintiffs adore sprinkling a bit of fiduciary duty action into their pleadings against solicitors. Their counsel see it as moon dust. A sophisiticated plaintiff (who had been party to separate litigation which eventually culminated in a High Court case about contractual certainty) tried it on in a somewhat novel way in Equuscorp Pty Ltd v Wilmoth Field Warne (No 3) [2004] VSC 164 but bombed out before Justice Byrne. Continue reading “Fiduciary duties and the sophisticated client”

Queensland Legal Services Commissioner

The Office of the Queensland Legal Services Commissioner has, like VCAT, set up a searchable full-text database of disciplinary decisions in Queensland. A Queensland case on gross overcharging, resulting in a 12 month holiday for the solicitor caught my eye: Council of the Queensland Law Society Inc v Roche [2003] QCA 469. It is full of expressions like “inexcusable rapacity”. One of the charges was 12 minutes for wrapping a box of chocolates.

Conway v Ratiu: solicitors’ fiduciary duties

Conway v Ratiu [2005] EWCA Civ 1302, [2006] 1 All ER 571 (note), [2005] All ER (D) 103 (Nov) (full decision) English Court of Appeal (Auld LJ gave the lead decision with which Laws and Sedley LJJ agreed)

This report is an extract of 10 paragraphs from a defamation case in which, somehow or other, it was necessary to consider the nature of the solicitor’s fiduciary duty to the client. Lord Millett said in the leading modern English authority on conflicts between duties of confidentiality and of disclosure (that is, current client / past client conflicts) that the fiduciary duty terminates with the retainer, leaving only a duty of confidentiality. That is in a sense the principle taken issue with by Brooking JA in Spincode. Lord Justice Auld noted the principle had been wound back in Hilton v Barker Booth and Eastwood (a firm) [2005] UKHL at [28]-[30], and this proposition from Longstaff v Birtles [2001] EWCA Civ 1219 was cited with approval:

“The source of the [fiduciary] duty is not the retainer itself, but all the circumstances (including the retainer) creating a relationship of trust and confidence, from which flow obligations of loyalty and transparency. As long as that confidential relationship exists the solicitor must not place himself in a position where his duty to act in the interests of the confiding party and his personal interest … may conflict”. Continue reading “Conway v Ratiu: solicitors’ fiduciary duties”