A Western Australian disciplinary case, Legal Profession Complaints Committee v CSA  WASAT 57 is interesting in a number of ways. A criminal lawyer was the manager of a strata corporation. She owned two units and the complainant the third. The complainant affixed an airconditioner to a wall which impeded on a common area. She sought legal advice. Her lawyers wrote a letter of demand to the complainant and charged a few thousand dollars. The complainant did not fix the problem within the 14 days demanded, so the lawyer sued in the Magistrates’ Court. The case was settled on the basis that the airconditioner would be relocated and the lawyer withdrew the proceeding without seeking costs. When the complainant sold the third unit, the lawyer demanded that the complainant pay her the few thousand dollars her lawyers had charged her for the advice and the letter of demand. She did so by a letter of demand drafted for her by another lawyer, though the involvement of this second lawyer only emerged at the disciplinary hearing. When the complainant did not pay up, she sued for them in her personal capacity. The suit was found to have no legal foundation, but the lawyer said that she mistakenly thought that it did have a legal foundation, and that civil proceedings were not her thing. The case says:
1. The suit was an abuse of process because there was no legal foundation for suing for the recovery of ‘pre-litigation’ legal costs.
2. The lawyer’s conduct in threatening to bring and then bringing a suit which was an abuse of process was common law misconduct but was also a breach of a rule which prohibited lawyers from claiming on behalf of a client costs in a letter of demand for recovery of a debt because she was acting for herself in writing the letter (even though no legal letterhead or reference to her status as a lawyer was involved).
3. There is no defence of honest and reasonable mistake in professional discipline.
4. It is inappropriate for a disciplinary tribunal to make what the prosecutors described as ‘an incidental finding of dishonesty’ in relation to statements made during the investigation in respect of which no charge had been laid in the disciplinary proceeding. Any such allegation ought to be the subject of a separate process (though the Tribunal then went ahead and found that the allegation was not made out on the Briginshaw standard anyway). Continue reading “Self-represented solicitor guilty of misconduct for breaching a rule expressed to regulate conduct when acting for a client”