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  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  VSC 205 at  and Santamaria JA (with whom Neave JA agreed) did so at  VSCA 154 at );
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”