Barrister leaves claiming the immunity too late to get costs when he wins

Zunica’s Case [2006] VCAT 110

A barrister succeeded on an immunity defence and sought costs upon receiving the reasons. The applicant sought recognition of the fact that a costs dispute survived the immunity decision. Mr Butcher said [7]:

“The jurisdiction of the Tribunal to hear and determine a dispute is based upon the dispute as it is originated and described to the relevant RPA, in this case the Victorian Bar.”

Although the Victorian Bar had described the matter as a costs dispute and a pecuniary loss dispute in the critical notice under s. 128 of the old Act to the effect that it could not settle the problems, allowing the parties to refer the matter to the Tribunal should one of them wish to do so, he found that properly construed, the documents which had led the Victorian Bar to describe the matter as in part a costs dispute were found in fact to constitute purely a pecuniary loss dispute. And that was despite the fact that the box on the form used to lodge costs and pecuniary loss dispute resolution requests next to the statement “I think the legal practitioner handled the matter badly and I don’t want to pay for this” was ticked. It was so because the covering letter under which the form had been lodged, drafted by a solicitor, “formally claim[ed] pecuniary loss”, and there was no evidence that the discretion to exercise the 6 month time limit for the lodgment of costs disputes had been exercised by the Victorian Bar.

The costs application failed because the whole dispute resolution process took almost 18 months, but the respondent barrister did not assert the immunity as a defence until a week before the hearing. He asserted that:

“it was not proper for a claim for immunity to have been brought [during the attempts at dispute resolution by the Victorian Bar] on the basis that the dispute is misconceived or lacking in substance” [26].

Mr Butcher agreed with that submission, though later he said more equivocally:

“Even if the matter were to be allowed to go through the process of the Bar Ethics Committee before claiming the immunity…”.

It is not at all clear why a barrister ought not claim the immunity during the process of the Bar Ethics Committee. What that Committee was charged with doing, under s. 128 of the Legal Practice Act, 1996 was to attempt to settle the dispute. A dispute with a man who is immune from the dispute and relies on it must be easier to settle than a dispute with a man who does not.

The proposition that:

“It is no answer to say that the applicant client should have known of the immunity; what is relevant is when and how it is notified by the legal practitioner claiming that immunity”

is superficially unattractive since the test for the award of costs against an applicant is whether the dispute was misconceived, but the reasoning is in fact correct, because the immunity is a defence and the dispute is not misconceived until such time as the respondent advises he wishes to avail himself of the defence.

Ed Richards was for the applicant, Peter Cawthorn for the respondent, a barrister.

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