Lessons from a tome in the dome on the assignment of suits’ fruits

Cruelly, the Legal Services Commissioner prosecuted my client recently for disbursing monies from his trust account to the wrong person, albeit without the slightest dishonest intent, which he said would be regarded by competent and reputable peers as disgraceful or dishonourable.  I say ‘cruelly’ because he made me go to the Supreme Court Library, and read impenetrable equity texts in its dome for hours.  I read the most obscure article I can ever remember reading: P G Turner’s ‘Assignment by Way of Charge’ (2004) Australian Bar Review 280.

The Commissioner said the solicitor’s client had assigned in equity the proceeds of their claims against negligent drivers for the cost of repairing their vehicles.  The assignee was said to be the repairer’s factor.  When the monies came into my client’s trust account, they were said to be ‘charged in equity’ (‘charged in law’ as well in fact, which I never got to the bottom of), such that the solicitor was obliged to pay them not to his client but to the assignee-chargor.  The Commissioner backed down from this claim in the end, but not before I had burrowed into the law.  Harsh.

In this post I gather together some law about assignment of choses in action.  Nothing new.  Just a summary of the law in case you are as ignorant of its nuances as I was before I hit the equity tome in the dome.  The most thorough texts are Heydon, Leeming and Turner Equity Doctrines and Remedies (2015, Lexis) and the superbly written The Law of Assignment by Marcus Smith and Nico Leslie (2013, OUP).

The reason this post is easier to understand and a great deal shorter than either book is that it does not deal with the many exceptions and uncertainties associated with the below propositions, and looks only at the law of Victoria.  And it ignores the Personal Properties and Securities Act 2009. You’d better look up the law yourself if you need to.  What follows might help you make sense of it though. Continue reading “Lessons from a tome in the dome on the assignment of suits’ fruits”

Too broad a range of estimates of total costs causes NSW solicitor great grief

Frontier Law Group Pty Ltd v Barkman [2016] NSWSC 1542 is an ex tempore decision of Justice Slattery in an urgent application to extend the operation of a caveat lodged by solicitors over their client’s property.  The application failed in part because the solicitors did not prove, even to the prima facie level required in such an application, that the money said to be owing and secured by the equitable charge which was the subject of the caveat was in respect of fees invoiced under the costs agreement referred to in the caveat.  That is not particularly interesting except as schadenfreude.

Two things are interesting though, given that the costs agreement was probably entered into in 2012 and so the Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW) almost certainly applied (even though the Court looked also at the situation under the Legal Profession Uniform Law (NSW)):

  • First, the Court found that the range of estimates of total legal costs was so wide as not to comply with the relevant disclosure obligation.
  • Secondly, the Court appears to have treated the extension application as the commencement of proceedings for the recovery of legal costs, such that the statutory preconditions to such proceedings needed to be, but were not, proven to be satisfied by the lawyers.

I cannot think of another authority which states so plainly that some estimates are so imprecise as to render them non-compliant with the obligation to give a range of estimates of total legal costs.  But now we have it: a decision of the Supreme Court of NSW under a legislative scheme of which Victoria is also a part and which is likely to be followed as a matter of comity in Victoria.

What the Court said is: Continue reading “Too broad a range of estimates of total costs causes NSW solicitor great grief”

$5,000 fines in lawyers’ disciplinary prosecutions

In this post, I noted the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s review of fines in solicitors’ disciplinary proceedings. I did my own little survey of Victorian cases recently in order to justify to the VCAT a joint submission as to penalty following a plea.

How naughty does a lawyer have to be to cop a fine of $5,000 in a disciplinary prosecution where that is the principal penalty (often paired with a reprimand, and costs of about $5,000)?  This naughty:

Continue reading “$5,000 fines in lawyers’ disciplinary prosecutions”

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”

NSW solicitor who didn’t pay counsel’s fees struck back on

Salvatore Russo, a solicitor of 29 years’ standing, was struck off NSW’s roll of solicitors on 16 April 2016 by NCAT.  He had received payment from his client for counsel’s fees but not paid counsel for years. Then he was high-handed in response to the client’s entreaties when counsel sued the client directly.  The Court of Appeal found a denial of procedural fairness by NCAT.  The Tribunal had telescoped the questions of liability and penalty into one hearing.  It had failed to give Mr Russo sufficient notice of the fact it was considering striking him off despite the fact by the end of the trial, the Commissioner was not seeking such an outcome any more. Now he’s been struck back on by the NSW Court of Appeal, a fine of $20,000 substituted for his misconduct: Russo v Legal Services Commissioner [2016] NSWCA 306.  (In fact, the striking off never came into operation, because he got a stay along the way.) Continue reading “NSW solicitor who didn’t pay counsel’s fees struck back on”

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”

D3 and D4 settle with P and take over P’s case against D1 and D2 (-not)

Taylor v Hobson [2016] QSC 226 is a strange old case. Plaintiffs sued defendants for damages alleging they had been misled into purchasing a business.  They sued the vendors and the vendors’ solicitors, alleging that each of the vendors and the solicitors had made misleading representations.  The solicitors (through their insurer) settled with the plaintiffs.  The solicitors promised to pay  a settlement sum to the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs promised to let lawyers appointed by the solicitors’ insurer act for them and run the plaintiffs’ case for them, with a view to recovering damages from the vendors and giving those damages to the solicitor defendants.  It was a creative form of litigation funding, if you will.  But it was a bit too creative for the Supreme Court of Queensland.

The insurer was to appoint new solicitors, not the solicitors which had been representing the solicitor defendants in the proceeding.  Nevertheless, the Court stayed the case as constituting an abuse of process for so long as the defendant-appointed solicitors were running the plaintiffs’ case.  The parties to the settlement might now amend it so as to remove the element of control over the plaintiffs’ case, therefore. The case may continue, and that aspect of the settlement deed which required the plaintiffs to give to the solicitor defendants the proceeds of their claim against the vendors might still have its operation.

Applications to stay disciplinary decisions pending appeal

I had to convince the Legal Services Commissioner to consent to a stay of orders suspending my client pending an appeal he has brought from VCAT the other day.  Happily the Commissioner consented.  For next time, I squirrel away this re-statement by the New South Wales Court of Appeal of the application to this class of case of the law governing applications for stays in civil proceedings pending appeal in Griffin v Council of the Law Society of New South Wales [2016] NSWCA 275.  (I reported on the first instance decision here, and this latest decision reveals that the solicitor has applied for the removal of his appeal to the High Court so it can rule authoritatively on the application of the freedom of political speech to criticism of the third arm of government, the judiciary.) Continue reading “Applications to stay disciplinary decisions pending appeal”

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.

Third party payer taxations where client bankrupt: WASCA

In Iron Mountain Mining Ltd v K & L Gates [2016] WASCA 166, the appellant, a listed company, had indemnified one of its directors against the legal costs of lawyers defending the director in criminal charges.  Companies can do this on the basis that the director must repay the costs if he pleads or is found guilty, since it is illegal to indemnify a costs liability incurred as an officer of the company if the costs are incurred in defending or resisting criminal proceedings in which the person is found guilty: ss. 199A-C Corporations Act 2001Note Printing Australia Ltd v Leckenby [2015] VSCA 105; (2015) 106 ACSR 147 [65]. The company paid more than $500,000 in respect of the fees prior to the guilty plea.

The director went bankrupt.  The company applied for taxation of the director’s solicitors’ fees.  By that time, the director had pleaded guilty to some of the charges.  The company was a non-associated third party payer; it promised to pay the lawyers’ fees, but its promise was made to the director and not to the lawyers. The Court found that the right given to third party payers to seek taxation did not adjust the interests of the client and the lawyers; it only adjusted the interests between the third party payer and the client: Continue reading “Third party payer taxations where client bankrupt: WASCA”

Does a subrogated claim give rise to a general res judicata if an insured’s loss is partly insured and partly uninsured?

In De Armas v Peters [2015] NSWSC 1050, the Supreme Court of NSW declined to grant leave to appeal from a decision of the Local Court.  The Local Court had allowed a man to sue for the cost of repairs to his car, even though he had previously sued her for car hire costs he incurred while those repairs were being undertaken.  And even though, in that first case, the Local Court had found him to be the negligent driver, not the woman.  Impossible?  There was of course a twist.  The first suit was brought with the involvement of a car hire company from whom the man had hired the car he used while his car was being repaired. No doubt they had told him that the car would be at no cost to him and the cost of the hire would be recovered by the car hire company’s solicitors from the negligent driver.  The second suit was brought by his insurer, having stepped into his shoes through the law of subrogation.  The man’s losses were partly insured and partly uninsured, hence his deal with the car hire company to which he was probably referred by his repairer.  And the woman’s insurer had not taken any defence of abuse of process in either proceeding before she obtained judgment in the first.  You can watch a discussion between AAMI’s solicitor and barrister about the decision on the excellent BenchTV here. Continue reading “Does a subrogated claim give rise to a general res judicata if an insured’s loss is partly insured and partly uninsured?”

News from Tibet

For some reason the latest of many stories I keep up with from Tibet, where I have travelled, prompts me to share it with you.  Maybe it’s the contrast with the case of wrongfully convicted Steven Avery, the subject of ‘Making a Murderer’ (did you hear that Brendan Dassey’s conviction has just been overturned?).  Maybe it’s that I too have a 6-ish year old, whose school is forever receiving delegations of kids from China who, and their parents before them, have likely been fed exclusively propaganda about Tibet which they no doubt consider to be a fractious and backward, quaintly religious outpost of neo-feudalists, a wild west.  Maybe it’s the people smuggler angle.  Maybe it’s the amazement at finding a story which causes the Don Dale saga to pale into comparative insignificance. Maybe it’s a frustration with the self-censorship about China which is so pervasive, and the near-complete control by the Communist Party of China of even Australian media (Chinese language media, to be precise).  Maybe it’s that this case has been thoroughly investigated by New York’s Human Rights Watch, whom I trust absolutely, and whose 108 page report forms the basis of much of what follows.

Who knows? But here goes with the short version (I’m going to assume the Tibetans’ suspicions are correct, which seems fair to me, given the Chinese authorities’ lack of enthusiasm for sharing and enthusiasm for repeatedly cremating details of the case). The Chinese framed one of the most senior supporters of the Dalai Lama still in Tibet, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, himself a venerated lama with a philanthropic flair. They charged him with financing a terrorist bombing, sentenced him to death in a mockery of a trial along with a co-accused whom they probably procured to implicate Tenzin Delek by torturing him.  Delek’s, but not the co-accused’s, sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

The Chinese tortured Delek for 13 years, beating him, starving him, throwing boiling or freezing water over him, all the while sarcastically suggesting he use some of his magic lama powers.  They hurriedly cremated him inside the prison without an autopsy after his death in jail, locked his grieving sister and her daughter up without charge for weeks and released them only after trying to have them promise they would not publicly suggest he was poisoned, and harassed or detained 60-80 supporters at around the same time 100 human rights lawyers and activists were thrown into jail. All of which prompted the super-cool looking niece Nyima Lhamo, pictured, to pay people smugglers $10,000 to trudge her across the Himalaya to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s place of exile in the Indian Himalayas, to tell the story, leaving to the depravities of infuriated Chinese officials her ailing mother and 6 year old daughter.

And guess what? Since I started this post, news has reached me that the mother and daughter have gone missing after being detained by Chinese police. And news has also come to my attention of the propaganda video with a purported confession of a prominent lawyer arrested in the 2015 arrests.  As the Washington Post put it, ‘Wang rips apart her entire career of human rights law. Speaking in mellifluous tones while sitting underneath a tree, she denounces her former colleagues and refuses to accept a prestigious human rights prize awarded to her by the American Bar Association.’  The op ed explains how this is achieved: ‘…  the authorities might move to physical torture, including chaining detainees to a “tiger bench” in excruciating positions for days and sometimes weeks, applying electric shocks to their genitals, jolting and beating them with electric police batons, or placing them in long solitary confinement, to name a few. Some activists have been so traumatized as to be unable to speak after being released from detention …’.

Continue reading “News from Tibet”

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”

Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it

Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] QCAT 237 is a decision of a disciplinary tribunal presided over by Justice David Thomas, President of QCAT and a Supreme Court judge. It is therefore of high persuasive value, and treats Queensland provisions which are the same as the equivalent Victorian provisions. And it provides what I suggest with respect are the correct answers to the following questions:

  • How negligent do you have to be before you can be found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct as defined in provisions which say that the concept includes ‘conduct that falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that a member of the public is entitled to expect of a reasonably competent’ lawyer holding a practising certificate? (Answer at [44] and [27]: substantial and very obvious fallings short of the standard, established by direct inferences from exact proofs.)
  • What must be pleaded specifically in a disciplinary charge? (Answer at [82] – [92]: all states of mind, not only dishonest intents, and all facts to be relied on (‘the charges to be levelled must be fully and adequately set out in the Discipline Application. As a matter of procedural fairness, the Practitioner should not be left in any doubt as to the extent of the allegations that is to be met.’)
  • To what extent is a disciplinary tribunal constrained in its decision making by the allegations specifically made in the charge? (Answer at [96] – [108]: absolutely: if no state of mind is alleged, the prosecution should not be allowed to call evidence as to state of mind; ‘it would be wrong to admit evidence the principal purpose of which is to establish conduct that lies beyond the ambit of the charge’.)
  • Does the mere fact that charges are not allowed on taxation mean that there has been overcharging such as to warrant discipline? (Answer at [76] – [77]: no)

The Tribunal dismissed charges against a solicitor who lodged a caveat pursuant to an equitable mortgage without checking that it satisfied the Statute of Frauds’ writing requirements and against a partner of her firm who took over her files when she was on holidays and billed the client for the work in attempting unsuccessfully to register the caveat.

I move from the specific facts of this QCAT case to general comment (what follows is certainly not veiled reference to the conduct of the Commissioner’s counsel in QCAT). There is a very real reason to insist on the particularization of states of mind in disciplinary tribunals, including particulars of actual and constructive knowledge. These details do not always get left out just because it is thought that disciplinary tribunals are not courts of pleading and such minutiae is not appropriate. Nor do they just get left out because they are thought to be inherent in the allegation, or because of incompetence, or mere mistake. Rather, they get left out because bureaucrats have investigated incompetently and when competent counsel come to plead disciplinary applications based on the investigation, they do not have a sufficient factual foundation to make these allegations, or perhaps are simply too timid.

But sometimes counsel with civil practices, untutored in the art of prosecutorial restraint, and safe in their private belief that the practitioner is in fact much more evil than incompetent investigation established, might fall prey to temptation. Mealy-mouthed, ambiguous allegations might be made which require the practitioner to get into the witness box. Then, all manner of unpleaded allegations as to states of mind and as to completely un-pleaded conduct, justified in relevance as tendency evidence or circumstantial evidence of the pleaded facts, might be cross-examined out of the practitioner and an unpleaded case presented to the disciplinary tribunal in closing. In a tribunal not bound by the rules of evidence, such questioning may be waved through with lip service to the proposition that objections will be dealt with by according appropriate weight to the evidence in the final analysis. Queensland leads the charge against such conduct, and I can’t help thinking it’s because Supreme Court judges seem to get involved in disciplinary decisions more often up there. All power to them. So impressed am I with this latest judgment, I have decided to go on a study tour of the Sunshine Coast in the September school holidays.

Continue reading “Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it”

A little case about a barrister suing a solicitor for fees

Barnet Jade has given us an admirably constructed decision of Assessor Olischlager, a no-doubt busy decision maker in the Small Claims Division of the Local Court in NSW.  Dupree v Russo [2016] NSWLC 8 was a barrister’s suit for fees against a solicitor.  Call me a dag, but it is always a pleasure to find diligent, elegant decisions carefully considering bang-on authority from the busiest decision makers who generally receive little assistance in the researching and writing of decisions. The decision considers whether costs agreements came into existence by the continued giving of instructions, and between whom, what disclosure obligations the barrister had, and whether the limitation period for suing for the fees was re-set by an acknowledgement of debt by the solicitor.

The barrister offered to enter into a costs agreement jointly and severally with his instructing solicitor and their client.  The offer said that the continuing provision of instructions would be taken as acceptance.  The solicitor continued to give instructions on behalf of the client.  The Court found that a costs agreement arose: the instructions were given by the solicitor personally and as agent for his client, as an act of acceptance on both their parts.  As the Assessor said: Continue reading “A little case about a barrister suing a solicitor for fees”

A defendant seeking in Victoria to join a concurrent wrongdoer need not establish a prima facie case by evidence

Here is a link to a presentation by Ross Macaw QC on proportionate liability.  It is produced by benchTV, an enhancement to the long-excellent new case notification service, Benchmark, provided by AR Connoly & Co in Sydney.  Mr Macaw considers Justice John Dixon’s beautifully written judgment in Fabfloor (Vic) Pty Ltd v BNY Trust Company of Australia Limited [2016] VSC 99.

In that case, there was a fire in a warehouse and the plaintiffs’ goods and nearby land were damaged. They sued the occupier of the warehouse and others.  The occupier said that if it was liable, then it was also the fire inspector’s, the builder’s, and others’ fault as well. The question was what a defendant needed to do in order to have alleged concurrent wrongdoers not sued as defendants by the plaintiffs joined.  Was a mere pleading assertion sufficient, as in the case of a third party notice? Or was it necessary to produce some evidence sufficient to allow the Court to see a prima facie case against the alleged concurrent wrongdoers, and exercise a discretion to join?  Even though those seeking to join are not usually forced to establish by evidence a prima facie case, is that just because it is often waived by the person resisting joinder?

The answer is: you need a pleading which is not hopeless; you generally don’t need to put on evidence; the power to join is in s. 24AL of the Wrongs Act 1958 and the Rules of the Supreme Court are not really to the point; the power is discretionary and evidence might be necessary if some point which goes to the discretion (e.g. prejudice by virtue of delay, or abuse of process) is enlivened, but that evidence would not generally be as to the merits of the claim sought to be brought). Continue reading “A defendant seeking in Victoria to join a concurrent wrongdoer need not establish a prima facie case by evidence”

Proving a loss for insurance purposes; inadequacy of reasons as an appeal ground

In Kalloghlian v Chubb Insurance Company of Australia Ltd [2016] NSWSC 902 (the Court’s summary is here), a man said he purchased a Rolex in Syria in 2005.  He insured his things with Chubb against loss anywhere in the world.  The policy was described as ‘Deluxe’.  It specifically insured items  which the insured owned as well as things he possessed.  The insured said he lost the watch on Copacabana Beach in July 2014.  The police declined to take a report.  He had no receipt from its purchase.  He could not remember from which jeweller he had purchased it.  He had lost his passport for the period of the trip to Syria.  Chubb declined the claim.  The insured sued.  The Magistrate dismissed the suit.  The insured appealed. The Supreme Court ordered a new trial.

The decision is hardly ground breaking.  But it is simple.  And it is useful to be reminded about the following:

  1.  An insured may prove a loss by giving oral evidence of the loss.  A lack of documentary or other corroboration is not fatal.  It is just something to be assessed in considering whether the plaintiff has satisfied the Court it is more likely than not that he suffered the loss.
  2. That is so even where it is a condition of cover under the policy that the plaintiff provide various proofs of ownership and of loss.  That is because s. 54 of the Insurance Contracts Act 1984 excuses breaches by the insured of policy conditions where the breach cannot have caused the loss, except to the extent of any prejudice to the insurer.
  3. Even busy decision makers in over-worked jurisdictions have to identify controversies raised by the parties which are necessary to determine in order to find for one party or the other, and explain why they resolved those controversies the way they did.  A failure to do so will result in the decision being set aside.  Robert Sheldon QC’s blog keeps an eye on this area of law.  See here and here and here.  The Court’s summary of the obligation in New South Wales to give adequate reasons is set out in full below.
  4. Where the facts are ascertained sufficiently that there is only one correct decision, the appellate tribunal may substitute its decision.  Where, as here, however, it was necessary to take into account how witnesses presented, the appellate tribunal will remit the case to be re-heard, where necessary (as here) by a new decision maker.

The obligation to give proper reasons, especially where there are contests of oral evidence, is an important one and should be jealously guarded.

Continue reading “Proving a loss for insurance purposes; inadequacy of reasons as an appeal ground”

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”

Applications to extend time to tax lawyers’ bills: keep ’em tight

Many disputes about costs are still governed by the Legal Profession Act 2004.  It specified as the time in which to seek taxation a period of 12 months.  Where a bill is given, the 12 month period starts from the date of service of the bill.  But since Collection Point Pty Ltd v Cornwalls Lawyers Pty Ltd [2012] VSC 492, it is clear that clients have until 12 months after the service of the final bill in any particular matter to seek taxation of any previous bill.  Of course what is the final bill in the same matter is a difficult question.  What is clear is that one costs agreement may govern several matters.

Applications to extend time must be made to a Justice of the Supreme Court (as opposed to any decision maker in the Costs Court or any Associate Justice) under s. 3.4.38(6).  The law is well-summarised by John Dixon J in Rohowskyj v S Tomyn & Co [2015] VSC 511, and his Honour’s guidance about the nature of an extension of time application is useful and prone to be overlooked: Continue reading “Applications to extend time to tax lawyers’ bills: keep ’em tight”

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”