Lawyer doesn’t get admitted for taking the rap for boss’s red light infringement

Jackson (previously known as Subramaniam) v Legal Practitioners Admission Board [2006] NSWSC 1338.

Kala Subramaniam (now Jackson) took the rap for a red light infringement notice addressed to Leigh Johnson, her criminal lawyer boss, maintaing the perjury in court on oath, bragged about it within the law firm she worked in sufficiently obnoxiously to convince one of her colleagues to wear a police wire and record an excruciating confession, got convicted under a special process for the mentally ill, appealed all the way to the High Court, got the conviction quashed on procedure associated with insanity, played the whole thing down in her application for admission, and managed not to get admitted as a result. I must admit to enjoying the schadenfreude.

Ms Subramaniam managed to have her conviction quashed in the High Court, on grounds of insanity, but then paid the price for being less than candid when it came time to apply for admission as a lawyer (“I was a victim of a horrendous unjustified District Court matter over a ‘red light traffice offence’. It ran over many years, for political reasons, at the expense of my health and career,” she said in her disclosures on applying for admission, before the High Court decision came down, and so while she remained convicted of perjuring herself in a conspiracy with a criminal lawyer to defeat the criminal law.) She described her perjurious abuse of process, on tape:

“Well, I just sat in the witness box and had a nice conversation with the judge. … And he was just sitting there asking me questions, and I was just, like, sitting back, enjoying myself … (Laughs) It was so funny”.

That turned out not to be such a great thing to say on tape, because, not having actually been driving the car she claimed to have been driving, Ms Subramaniam tripped in evidence, mistakenly taking up the Magistrate’s confusion about whether the offence occurred at eight in the morning or at eight at night, which she later had to try to explain away on the basis that she had been a little flustered and “obviously didn’t hear the night or day”. Cross-examined about the excruciating confession, she said:

“I told Maria whatever she wanted to hear, whatever was the conversation of the day. It was just whatever. The rest of the tape speaks for itself. It was literally all in the same line of, you know, garrulous laughing, two friends getting together over coffee. … it’s fantasy. A lot of it’s fantasy, a lot of it’s fiction.”

“Ridiculous, laughing, carrying on, you know,” she said elsewhere in cross-examination. “What can I say? Stupid banter”, she said.

That didn’t wash with anyone, the High Court included, but she did manage to get up on one point in the High Court such that her conviction-not was quashed: the trial judge failed to direct the jury adequately in relation to s. 21(4) Mental Health (Criminal Procedure) Act, 1990 (NSW). (After the trial on the counts of perverting the course of justice had resulted in a hung jury, Ms Subramanian’s mental health deteriorated to the extent that she was found unfit to be tried, but was tried instead pursuant to the special procedures of the aforementioned statute, resulting in a conclusion that the offence charged of making a false statutory declaration had been committed, and a three year good behaviour bond, but not a conviction.)

Liliane Viselle, like Schapelle a beauty therapist, described Subramaniam as “of the highest integrity”. Richard Rae, an ad man, said she had “the highest ethical standards”. Michael Clowes, a “management consultant” said she was of the highest integrity, and Mary Barclay, “head of drama” said she was “impeccable in her honesty”. Trang Vu, company director, spoke of Subramaniam’s “intelligence, honesty and integrity”. One can only wonder whether they are feeling sheepish these days, but none of this hyperbole did Ms Subramaniam any good. Judge Peter Johnson said:

“the Plaintiff strains credulity in her attempt to characterise the entire conversation, including statements against interest made by her concerning the red-light camera offence and subsequent events as ‘gossip’ and ‘mindless garbage’. … Her evidence in this regard is glaringly improbable. Before reaching this conclusion, I have had regard to the totality of the evidence, including the evidence of the Plaintiff’s reputation and character”.

So the judge concluded:

“I am conscious that the events which have attracted the principal attention of the Court on this appeal occurred more than a decade ago. However, the making of a false statutory declaration and the giving of false evidence in a Court are matters which strike at the heart of the processes of justice. To act in such a way is entirely inconsistent with teh requirements of honesty which are essential prerequisites for admission as a legal practitioner. The Plaintiff had commenced her legal studies by the time of relevant events in 1995 and 1996. Findings that the Plaintiff has acted in this way are inconsistent with the requirement that the Plaintiff be of good character.

It is clear that, had the question been asked in August 1996, the Plaintiff could not have satisfied a court that she was then of good fame and character and otherwise suitable for admission as a legal practitioner.

The Plaintiff is not assisted by the passage of time since the events of 1995 adn 1996. I have found that she is not a credible witness, in particular in her glaringly improbable account attempting to explain away her admissions to Ms Coughlan… This was a central feature of her evidence. The Plaintiff’s disclosure to the Board in June 2003 was incomplete and self-serving, and did not demonstrate a proper perception of her duty of candour. This does not assist the Plaintiff in the present application.”

The saga is laid out here:

  • a Sunday transcript “Leigh Johnson v The Law Society”, 30 November 1997;
  • Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of NSW v Helen Maria Coughlan (Dowd J, 21 April 1998, unreported);
  • R v Subramaniam [2002] NSWCCA 372;
  • Subramaniam v The Queen (2004) 79 ALJR 116; [2004] HCA 51;
  • a Sydney Morning Herald article, “Red Light Affair Ends Up in the High Court; Eight Years On”, 10 November 2004;a Richard Ackland article in the 11 August 2006 Sydney Morning Herald;
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