Melbourne solicitor charged with contempt

As reported in the Sunday Age, a Melbourne solicitor successfully sued four policemen who bashed his client and broke her jaw (see the photo in the article, and, to balance the books, see the mobile phone footage of youths bashing police here). According to The Age, the story begins, like this:

“two police officers … stopped Ms Horvath, then 21, and her partner, Craig Love, and declared her car unroadworthy. Believing the couple were ignoring the roadworthy sticker, the next day the officers illegally entered their Somerville home. Knowing they did not have a warrant, Ms Horvath ordered them off her property. The officers called for reinforcements. When six others arrived a decision was made to raid the house, breaking down the door if necessary, and arrest Ms Horvath and Mr Love”.

The facts recounted by the Court of Appeal are more complex, but on reflection no less shocking.The plaintiff’s solicitor now stands charged with contempt of the County Court. The government appealed the verdict against it, and the trial judge’s order that it pay the plaintiff’s costs of the trial was stayed pending appeal. But then the Court was convinced to lift the stay so that the plaintiff’s costs could be paid, conditional on the plaintiff’s solicitor personally undertaking to repay the money if the appeal succeeded (see Victoria v Horvath (No. 2) [2003] VSCA 24 at [5]). The appeal succeeded (see Victoria v Horvath [2002] VSCA 177) and the solicitor has not paid the money back, so he stands charged with contempt. Of course he did not pocket all of the fees paid personally: much would have gone to barristers and on disbursements. According to The Age, the solicitor is to claim contribution from the barristers against his obligation to the state.

Breach of a formal written undertaking to a court is a serious disciplinary offence. But the circumstances of this matter must give any disciplinarian pause. It will be interesting to see how the case pans out.

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