Does the Legal Services Board have the power retrospectively to excuse inadvertently practising briefly without a practising certificate?

As with most years, no doubt scores of Victorian lawyers forgot to renew their practising certificates last year.  For months, in some cases, this situation was allowed by the regulators to persist without intervention.  In Victorian Bar Inc v GSL [2006] VCAT 435 the VCAT, constituted by Judge Bowman, Peter Jopling QC, and Ms F Harrison made clear that the disciplinary Tribunal expected regulators to be proactive to prevent practitioners inadvertently practising uncertificated. Eventually, at least in some cases, the regulators seem to have raised the issue with some practitioners whose sudden apparent cessation of practice at a young age seemed unlikely.

May I respectfully suggest that you go and check, now, whether you actually have a practising certificate for the current financial year.

The question now that the regulators have apparently complied imperfectly with VCAT’s guidance is what ought to happen?  Should the practitioners who are close to blameless for practising without a certificate be given a new one with retrospective effect (some were told, for example, by their office manager that the applications had been lodged before the end of the year, and were entitled to assume that their existing practising certificate had ongoing operation pending the Board getting around to dealing with the application, by virtue of a legislative provision to that effect discussed below). Or should the full consequences of the law, including disciplinary investigation, and the refunding to clients of fees for work done while uncertificated (s. 10, LPUL), be brought to bear? The latter approach has the disadvantage of causing lawyers’ professional indemnity insurer to cancel cover during the period of non-certification and the Fidelity Fund may be unavailable to clients of the lawyers in question in relation to conduct engaged in while uncertificated.

What VCAT said was:

Continue reading “Does the Legal Services Board have the power retrospectively to excuse inadvertently practising briefly without a practising certificate?”

NSWCA surveys fines in NSW lawyers’ discipline decisions over a decade

Russo v Legal Services Commissioner [2016] NSWCA 306 was the subject of my previous post. The Court engaged in a comparatively sophisticated review of disciplinary outcomes in like cases.  The purposes of this post is to reproduce that review and comment on the variables which ought to be taken into account in any proper survey of past outcomes.

To survey penalties in like cases has always been an important part of sentencing and should be an important part in imposing disciplinary sanctions.  Barbaro  (2014) 253 CLR 58; [2014] HCA 2 and Cth v Director, Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate [2015] HCA 46; (2015) 326 ALR 476 do not suggest to the contrary.  They say that the purpose of a survey of like sanctions is to promote consistency in penalties but not the establishment of a range of available sanctions deviation from which is appellable.  Buchanan JA observed in R v Macneil-Brown [2008] VSCA 190, (2008) 20 VR 677 at [130]:

‘counsel can best assist a sentencing judge, not by advancing what they consider to be sentences at the lower or upper limits of a sound sentencing discretion, but by making submissions as to the existence and nature of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and providing some guide to the manner in which other judges have approached like cases by supplying sentencing statistics and citing passages from decided cases which bear upon aspects of the instant case.’

I would submit that any survey of fines as a disciplinary sanction must take into account, as an important aspect of the analysis, the financial situation of the person or persons liable to pay it.  The specific deterrence of a fine will vary greatly from one practitioner to another.  Practitioners who struggle, for personal reasons, are more likely to get themselves into trouble in the first place, and to exacerbate it by less than perfect intercourse with the Legal Services Commissioner.  Their financial situations often deteriorate too.  Specific deterrence may be achieved by imposition of a fine much smaller than would be imposed on a flourishing practitioner raking it in.  General deterrence will also be achieved if the Tribunal is transparent in taking account of financial circumstance.  In such a case, the Tribunal might indicate the kind of fine which might have been imposed had the practitioner enjoyed an average post-tax income.

Furthermore, the costs burden borne by the practitioner ought also to be taken into consideration.  Costs and fine are inter-related in this way: Environment Protection Authority v Barnes [2006] NSWCCA 246 at [88] (Kirby J speaking for the Court) applied by analogy in LSC v Bechara [2009] NSWADT 313. The extraordinary costs practitioners are liable to in Victoria following disciplinary prosecutions would very often be more than adequate to achieve specific and general deterrence.  If you are prosecuted and reprimanded, made the subject of an editorial on the front page of the Commissioner’s website, and have to cough up $40,000 in unrecoverable solicitor-client costs reasonably incurred and costs liability to the Legal Services Commissioner, that is going to make you think just as hard about doing it again as any comparatively trivial fine you might cop.

Finally, one must be astute to inflation.  In my experience, people tend to exaggerate the effect of inflation when considering older fines.  Here is a calculator which assists in measuring in today’s dollars a fine imposed some years ago.

For some reason, notwithstanding that NSW is now a part of the legal profession uniform law, the other participant in which is Victoria, no Victorian fines were part of the survey.  That strikes me as unusual, since there is a whole statutory office the purpose of which is to promote interstate uniformity in the application of the Uniform Law: the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation.  Russo’s Case was decided under the old legislation which the LPUL replaced, and which legislation in fact governed the prosecution was one of the issues on appeal.  Interestingly, apparently because it was thought that there were no relevant differences between the two regimes, that question was not decided.

This is what the NSWCA said about its survey of fines, and about the appropriate fine in this case: Continue reading “NSWCA surveys fines in NSW lawyers’ discipline decisions over a decade”

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”