Solicitors’ settlement advice immune from suit

I know for a fact that the profession does not understand the extent of the advocates’ immunity which is set out in the decision of the majority in D’Orta-Ekenaike v Victoria Legal Aid [2005] 223 CLR 1. Not uncommonly I see lawyers’ negligence claims arising out of litigation being defended without claiming the immunity, or wasting costs by failing to claim it at the outset. In Jezovita v AGL [2007] VCAT 1447, VCAT’s Senior Member Howell, undoubtedly the most experienced examiner of immunity defences in the world, has delivered a pithy judgment which reiterates two matters in a clear way, and states clearly something which is relatively newly brought out into the open, though it has been lurking around quietly if you looked hard enough. The two matters reiterated are:

  • in relation to out-of-court litigation work, solicitors are as entitled to the immunity as barristers, regardless of whether they are appearing as advocates or engaging in the solicitor’s traditional role; and
  • advice as to settlement of litigation, as well as failures to advise in relation to settlement issues, may not be sued on because of the immunity: Biggar v McLeod [1978] 2 NZLR 9; Kelley v Corston [1997] 4 All ER 466.

In this matter, both solicitors and barrister were entitled to summary disposition of Mr Jezovita’s claim against them that they pressured him into the settlement, should have realised he did not understand the terms of settlement, that they negotiated negligently and did not get a satisfactory result, and that they should have advised him to run his case. In other words, just another failed regretted settlement case.

The relatively new matter clearly expressed in this judgment is that adding an allegation of undue influence into the plaintiff’s case will not assist, because the equitable doctrine of undue influence either founds a defence to a claim based on a transaction said to have been induced by undue influence of the counterparty or founds a claim to set aside a disposition said to have been brought about by the exercise of undue influence on the part of the counterparty to the disposition, but does not lead to an entitlement to damages: D’Orta-Ekenaike v Victoria Legal Aid (per Buchanan JA in the reasons for decision of the Court of Appeal’s refusal to grant leave to appeal from Judge Wodak’s decision at first instance, approved by Justice Callinan on appeal at (2005) 223 CLR 1 at 121).

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