Legal Services Commissioner’s new decision making powers

The Victorian Legal Services Commissioner has published a report on his new proactive regulation of the profession.  It tells how risk profiles of practices are being constructed with the assistance of academics to target trust audits and audits of firms more generally (a new thing for law practices which are not ILPs).  It also tells about the exercise of the power to make binding decisions, and alerted me to the fact that the Commissioner now publishes redacted versions of costs determinations at this page. The report says: Continue reading “Legal Services Commissioner’s new decision making powers”

Judicial review of decisions to dismiss disciplinary complaints

A man was acquitted of criminal charges.  The prosecution’s appeal failed.  He complained about the police’s lawyers’ conduct to South Australia’s Bureau de Spank, the Legal Practitioner Conduct Commissioner.  The Commissioner dismissed the complaint.  There was a statutory right of appeal in respect of some but not all categories of decisions at the conclusion of a disciplinary investigation.  Dismissals of complaints were not decisions which attracted a right of appeal.  Furthermore, the Commissioner argued, the man had a right  essentially to prosecute the lawyers privately for misconduct as an ‘aggrieved person’ under s. 82(2)(d), Legal Practitioners Act 1981 (SA).

The Commissioner applied unsuccessfully for the summary dismissal of the judicial review application.  The Court found that even though in any ordinary prosecution which would have followed a disciplinary complaint, the parties would be the Commissioner rather than the complainant on the one hand and the lawyer on the other, the complainant’s connection as the object of the alleged misconduct to the subject matter of the complaint was sufficient to give him standing (or, more precisely, to avoid summary termination of his proceedings on the basis of lack of standing).  And that was so notwithstanding the statutory scheme for appeals which conspicuously excluded him from its tenderness and notwithstanding any right he may have privately to prosecute the lawyers.  The decision is reported as McLeod v Legal Profession Conduct Commissioner [2016] SASC 151.

The situation in Victoria is impacted, in respect of complaints to the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner to which the Legal Profession Uniform Law apply  by part 5.6 of chapter 5 (ss. 312 – 314).  Decisions of the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner under chapter 5 are ‘final, except as provided by this Part’.  The Commissioner is empowered to review his own decision but only at his absolute discretion.  And lawyers have a right to appeal to a person who is presumably intended to be VCAT from a disciplinary sanction imposed administratively by the Commissioner or a compensation order imposed by him for $10,000 or more.

As to the law in relation to the same question in Queensland, see Murphy v Legal Services Commission [2016] QSC 174.

Privilege and disciplinary investigations

Lawyers have an obligation proactively to assert and protect the privilege enjoyed by their clients and former clients: Re Stanhill Consolidated Ltd [1967] VR 749 at 752. I wrote about it in this post about the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic).  Lawyers have no implied or, I would suggest, ostensible authority to waive privilege belonging to former clients. The administration of justice will protect the privilege of persons who are unaware of the issue arising and make no assertion of the privilege: Legal Services Board v Garde-Wilson [2007] VCAT 1406 at [89].

In investigations of complaints by former clients about their former lawyers, no privilege issue arises, either under the Legal Profession Act 2004 or the Legal Profession Uniform Law.  The complaint would amount to an implied waiver at common law, and the question is put beyond doubt by statute.  Of course, this proposition has its limits and the wholesale use of client secrets against them in a manner disproportionate to the need to divulge them in response to their complaint is a seriously ugly look.  The issue of client privilege arises where disciplinary investigators are investigating complaints by non-clients, or in own motion investigations.  So, for example, I am advising in relation to a complaint made by the husband about conduct by the wife’s solicitors in a matrimonial proceeding between them.

Where a lawyer purports to waive a former client’s privilege without the client’s instructions, or simply fails to consider the question before handing documents over to the State, the law requires ‘the cat to be put back in the bag’ as far as possible: B v Auckland District Law Society [2003] UKPC 38 at [69]; British American Tobacco Australia Services Limited v Cowell [2002] VSCA 197 at [192].  So a disciplinary tribunal might well not receive, or put from its mind, evidence of privileged communications obtained by legal regulators in the course of investigations of non-client complaints where the client had not waived privilege, and indeed exactly that occurred in a VCAT case in which I was involved.

The law in relation to privilege and non-client complaints under the Legal Profession Act 2004 was clearly declared by VCAT.  The situation faced by  lawyers investigated under the LPUL following the complaints of non-clients, and in own motion investigations, in respect of pre-LPUL conduct is not so clear.  It is the subject of this post, which suggests that notwithstanding what the Legal Services Commissioner will tell you is a clear abrogation of privilege by the LPUL for all investigations conducted under it, lawyers in such circumstances should think carefully before giving up privileged communications without their former clients’ informed consent.  They should, in my submission, at least alert their clients to the possibility that the privilege might still be available to be asserted and give them the opportunity to assert it, if they care to sufficiently.

It will be increasingly important in the future to make clients aware that lawyer-client confidentiality has been largely done away with: all a person curious about the advice being obtained by his adversary need do is make a complaint about the adversary’s lawyer.  The old advice that ‘everything you tell me is strictly confidential’ cannot now be given without risking a negligence suit. Every time a solicitor tells a battered woman that whatever she tells him will be just between her and him, and he will seek her permission before using the information publicly or even in the Family Court, will have to add ‘unless your boyfriend or his father or a men’s rights action group make a disciplinary complaint against me, as they are perfectly entitled to do’.  So too the QC representing BHP in relation to tax matters: ‘Of course you understand that all this is privileged (unless the judge, who’s getting pretty cranky at me, refers me off for investigation by the Legal Services Commissioner)’.  I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic; I’m acting at this very moment for a solicitor whom the Commissioner is compelling to divulge privileged communications connected with the subject of proceedings, in a complaint by the other side to the proceedings, mid-proceedings.

Continue reading “Privilege and disciplinary investigations”

Advocates’ immunity: at once more powerful and narrower than most yet understand

Advocates’ immunity was, until recently, more powerful than many lawyers were aware. Since the 1 July 2015 introduction of the Legal Profession Uniform Law and the High Court’s May 2016 decision in Attwells v Jackson Lallic Lawyers Pty Limited,[1] however, it may be narrower than many realise. And perhaps not everyone is aware that the immunity these days is very likely peculiar to Australia; it is certainly not a feature of English, American, Canadian, Continental, Indian, South African or New Zealand law.[2] Continue reading “Advocates’ immunity: at once more powerful and narrower than most yet understand”

The Bureau de Spank’s obligation not to publish about disciplinary orders until lawyers’ appeal rights are spent

Parliament is considering a bill to re-instate the disciplinary register, and to prohibit the Bureau de Spank from trumpeting its successes before the respondent practitioners’ appeal rights are exhausted: Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Amendment Bill 2016 (Vic.).  Cl. 150E of the Bill proposes to prohibit the Legal Services Board from providing to the public information about disciplinary orders made by the VCAT’s Legal Practice List while appeals or appeal rights are live.  The prohibition extends beyond publication on the proposed disciplinary register to disclosure of information to the public more generally.

There is a problem with the Bill though: it focuses its protection of the profession on prohibitions of publications by the Legal Services Board about final orders.  The Board shares a website and premises with the office of the Legal Services Commissioner.  The CEO of the Board is in fact the Legal Services Commissioner, Michael McGarvie, who is also the applicant in all disciplinary prosecutions of lawyers in Victoria.  Yet the CEO, qua Commissioner, is content for his staff to write about cases he is prosecuting, before any orders have been made and while the tribunal is considering what orders to make.  On the homepage of the Board + Commissioner’s website, no less.

If parliament is concerned to ensure that the reputation of practitioners is not to be ruined by accounts of current proceedings by one of the parties to them where the aspect of things might change dramatically upon appeal, or even by bad decisions in such proceedings which are to be appealed, it ought to consider adding the Commissioner to the class of person covered by the prohibition, and to make clear that neither the Board nor the Commissioner ought publish details of disciplinary prosecutions while they are before the disciplinary tribunal.

It is not uncommon for appellate courts — the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal — to reverse decisions unfavourable to lawyers in disciplinary prosecutions of lawyers in VCAT’s Legal Practice List, or to substitute decisions more favourable to lawyers than those of VCAT or the legal regulators.  So the no publicity pending appeal proposition actually has some important work to do in the real world.  Consider, to name a few, Legal Services Commissioner v McDonald [2015] VSC 237PLP v McGarvie [2014] VSCA 253Stirling v Legal Services Commissioner  [2013] VSCA 374Burgess v Legal Services Commissioner [2013] VSCA 142Brereton v Legal Services Commissioner [2010] VSC 378Byrne v Marles [2008] VSCA 78, Quinn v Law Institute of Victoria [2007] VSCA 122Byrne v Law Institute of Victoria [2005] VSC 509. Consider also non-lawyers: Omant v Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia [2014] VSC 512, and Towie v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2008] VSCA 157 where the Court found that VCAT’s standard orders in disciplinary hearings were contrary to the privilege against penalties.  It will be observed that some of those decisions were made by very experienced members of VCAT’s Legal Practice List, and several by its Vice-President, a judge.

Continue reading “The Bureau de Spank’s obligation not to publish about disciplinary orders until lawyers’ appeal rights are spent”

Advocates’ immunity abolished in Victoria and NSW

Ok, so the High Court is still ruminating after the recent hearing of an appeal from Jackson Lalic Lawyers Pty Ltd v Attwells [2014] NSWCA 335 in which the immunity was again challenged.  And advocates’ immunity was probably already abolished in certain respects in Victoria by the Civil Procedure Act 2010, s. 29 of which gives anyone who suffers loss as a result of a lawyer’s breach of the overarching obligations in litigation a right to seek compensation from the court (but not VCAT) in which the case was conducted. But I just noticed something else not mentioned in any of the submissions, and about which I have heard not the faintest whisper of chatter more generally. Chapter 5 of the new uniform legislation in force in Victoria and NSW allows compensation orders to be made for professional negligence and appears to abrogate advocates’ immunity in relation to those kinds of claims.  Section 263(1) of the Legal Profession Uniform Law, which has been in operation in Victoria and NSW since 1 July 2015, says:

‘A provision of this Law or any other applicable law that protects a person from any action, liability, claim or demand in connection with any conduct of the person does not affect the application of this Chapter to the person in respect of the conduct.’ Continue reading “Advocates’ immunity abolished in Victoria and NSW”

Can an administrative agency determine that a crime has been committed?

In Australian Communications and Media Authority v Today FM (Sydney) Pty Ltd [2015] HCA 7, the High Court considered when an administrative agency can make a determination of the commission of a crime.  The case arises out of the sorry saga of two Today FM presenters impersonating the Queen and Prince Charles in inquiries of the hospital in which the Duchess of Cambridge was a patient.  ACMA conducted an investigation and published a preliminary report expressing the ‘view’ that Today FM had used its broadcasting service in the commission of an offence under the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NSW).  Commission of an offence in the course of use of a broadcasting service was a breach of the licence and carried with it the possibility of its revocation: s. 8(1)(g) Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005 (Cth). The Court said of ACMA’s ‘view’: No worries; full steam ahead, overturning a unanimous decision of a bench of the Full Federal Court presided over by its Chief Justice, and restoring the trial judge’s conclusions.

There are no doubt implications for Legal Services Commissioners and other disciplinary investigators where misconduct is defined to include the engaging in of criminal offences.  Under the uniform legislation to come into force in Victoria and NSW this year, Legal Services Commissioners will become decision makers and have the power to impose fines for professional misconduct.  I have blogged before about various cases in which a related question has arisen, of the appropriateness of administrative tribunals making determinations of the commission of offences, not with criminal consequences but with penal disciplinary consequences. Continue reading “Can an administrative agency determine that a crime has been committed?”

Unqualified costs consultants

There has been another challenge to the legality of the work done by non-lawyer costs consultants.  It did not go anywhere because of deficiencies in the way the client (himself a lawyer) went about trying to prove in the Magistrates’ Court that the costs consultant in question (a struck off lawyer) had engaged in unqualified practice, and because of the limited nature of an appeal from a Magistrate. The Supreme Court’s judges also emphasised the exactness of proof necessary to establish a breach of s. 2.2.2 Legal Profession Act 2004‘s prohibition on unqualified practice, given that it sets up an indictable criminal offence punishable by up to 2 years’ jail.  Such exactness is needed even in civil proceedings which obviously do not carry criminal consequences.

But as three judges of the Supreme Court made clear, all this means is that this was not the vehicle to decide just how much non-lawyers are permitted to do in the realm of costs law, and subject to what level of supervision by a lawyer, and there is little solace for unqualified costs consultants in the judgments.

The reasons of the Court of Appeal for not granting leave to appeal the Supreme Court’s dismissal of an appeal from a Magistrate are: Defteros v JS [2014] VSCA 154.  They are interesting for three reasons:

1.  They endorse comments made by the Costs Judge in a June 2010 decision as to the need for consideration of reform of the ‘mini-industry’ of costs consultants (Kaye J did so at [2014] VSC 205 at [85] and Santamaria JA (with whom Neave JA agreed) did so at [2014] VSCA 154 at [21]);

2.  They record an interesting submission of counsel, namely that the solicitor client was relying on his own contempt of the Supreme Court by asserting as a defence to a suit for fees a statutory prohibition on the recovery of money charged for the provision of legal services in contravention of the prohibition on unqualified practice — the contempt arose, so the argument ran, because the solicitor well knew at all relevant times that the costs consultant was not a practising certificate holder, and so had permitted the costs consultant to engage in unqualified practice if it had occurred, contrary to s. 2.2.10 of the Legal Profession Act 2004; and

3.  They emphasise the modern trend of leaving to the Costs Court questions which have traditionally been dealt with by certificates of the trial judge (e.g. certification for two counsel).

It will not be too long before someone takes a grip of this issue and runs a test case carefully.  An alternative battle ground might be found if the unqualified costs lawyers seek to influence the makers of the forthcoming Uniform Rules of professional conduct so as to provide an exemption for unqualified costs lawyers from the prohibition on unqualified practice: see s. 10(3), Legal Profession Uniform Law (Vic).  That seems to me to be the most efficient means of resolving the question.  In my books, if there is to be a place for the continued operation of unqualified practitioners there may be a case for restricting the exemption from unqualified practice to existing practitioners and closely defining the permissible ambit of their activities, perhaps to party-party disputes. Continue reading “Unqualified costs consultants”

Uniform Legal Services Council appointed

Following the appointment a little while ago of the inaugural Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation, Dale Boucher, The Victorian and NSW Attorneys General have announced the appointment of the Uniform Legal Services Council, the blokes who are to be responsible for the conduct rules which will shortly govern all Victorian and NSW lawyers.  Their bios follow.

I am currently drafting a costs agreement to comply with the new Act and rules.  Some of the law relating to costs as between solicitor and client has not yet been made, because the new Act provides for it to be made by the new rules.  Some time ago the Legal Services Board circulated to the Victorian profession for comment a draft of the rules which I had assumed would come into force more or less as circulated.  They were developed by the Law Council of Australia and were branded as the ‘Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules’.  When it became apparent that this new Council was to be established, however, the Victorian Legal Services Board decided not to adopt them so that the Council could do its work afresh or at least unaffected by the recent adoption by one of the two participants in the ‘national scheme of a new set of rules.  So there will be another round of consultation, and the detail of the new law may not be finalised until some time rather shortly prior to its commencement which was slated, last I heard, for early next year. Continue reading “Uniform Legal Services Council appointed”