Supreme Court sets aside default judgment in Magistrates’ Court and refers the fees to taxation instead of remitting suit for fees

Davey v Costanzo Lawyers Ltd [2021] VSC 449 is episode # c. 898 in my series  about suits for fees, ‘Many a Slip Twixt Cup and Lip’.

A family law firm whose website modestly explains that they are the ‘best family lawyers’ sued its former client for professional costs and barristers’ fees for work done in 2018.  They got default judgment for about $40,000 in June 2019, but they forgot to plead that they did the work set out in the bill, that being left to be inferred from the fact that they gave a bill.

In July 2019, a judicial registrar refused an application to set the default judgment aside.  A Magistrate at Heidelberg, reviewing that decision, came to the same conclusion in August 2019.  Then the plaintiff hired counsel and applied again to the same Magistrate to set aside the judgment, and she said no, again, in February 2020.

The lawyers had thrice claimed successfully that there was no merit at all in the client’s defence.  But the client got a barrister, sought judicial review in the Supreme Court and jumped the arguable defence hurdle on the fourth attempt, clearing House v R in the same leap though it was strictly unnecessary to do so, and won on the basis that the complaint had been so badly pleaded that it did not make out a cause of action in debt, so that the default judgment was irregular and should have been set aside ex debito justitiae.  Then she got costs.

The decision is also of interest in relation to the circumstances in which a second application to set aside a default judgment might succeed.  Quigley J observed in dicta:

’36 The new or additional material argued before her Honour is set out above at [16]. Her Honour was sceptical that the matters identified were new or different. However, insofar as it is necessary to make any observation in this regard, it is apparent that a more cogent formulation of the basis of the potential defence(s) [was] articulated in this second application before her Honour. In my view, this may be sufficient to provide a change in circumstances from the situation which pertained before the Court on the first occasion.’

In other words, if you’re represented competently the second time and you self-represented the first time, that might be enough. Continue reading “Supreme Court sets aside default judgment in Magistrates’ Court and refers the fees to taxation instead of remitting suit for fees”

Supreme Court flexes inherent jurisdiction of its own motion to require both parties’ lawyers’ costs to be taxed by the Costs Court on Scale

Pity the dozy lawyer who wanders innocently into Justice Cate McMillan’s court, bringing attitudes from days of yore about fees charged out of a great big fund.  Re Jabe; Kennedy v Schwarz [2021] VSC 106 should in my opinion be reported in the Victorian Reports as indicative of the breadth of and resilience to statutory incursion of the Court’s inherent jurisdiction.  The Court of its own motion sent both parties’ lawyers’ costs off to the Costs Court to be taxed on Scale, at the conclusion of a case, having found, on an inquiry initiated by Justice McMillan, disclosure defaults and void costs agreements governed by the Legal Profession Uniform Law, and legal costs that were not fair, reasonable and proportionate as required by that Law and the Civil Procedure Act 2010. Continue reading “Supreme Court flexes inherent jurisdiction of its own motion to require both parties’ lawyers’ costs to be taxed by the Costs Court on Scale”

Party-party, solicitor-client, indemnity, special indemnity, scale costs: where are we at?

It seems that Mukhtar AsJ found Bougainville Copper Ltd v RTG Mining Inc [2021] VSC 231 fascinating and rewarding.  It was an application for preliminary discovery to find out whether the applicant had a cause of action for damages for bribery and corruption by the respondent.  The respondent had a ‘resounding victory’; the applicant got no discovery at all, unable to establish the threshold suspicion to warrant such an order.

His Honour dismissed the respondent’s application for indemnity costs nevertheless in reasons published as [2021] VSC 348.  The indemnity costs application was based in part on allegedly unfounded allegations of wrongdoing insinuated by the applicant.  But it is one thing to make unfounded allegations in a case proper and another to insinuate them for the purposes of establishing whether there is such a case in a preliminary discovery application which is inherently fishing.

It is a beautifully written set of reasons, but I draw your attention to the costs judgment principally because it sets out crisply in one place the differences between the old party party costs and the new standard basis costs, and the old solicitor-client and indemnity costs and the new indemnity costs.  If you are after authority that the new standard basis is akin to the old solicitor-client basis, this is it (though the theory will not necessarily be reflected in Costs Court practice).

And the judgment re-iterates that which is much mis-understood, namely that when you get common garden variety indemnity costs, they are still calculated by reference to Scale, not by reference to what the winner was actually billed.  It is a while since this little newsletter has made that point.

One other mis-understood bit of the law of costs, to complete the picture, is the difference between taxation as between solicitor and own client and taxation as between parties on the solicitor-client basis, two different but dangerously similarly named enquiries.   The new taxonomy of costs as between party and party should reduce confusion since there will be no taxations on the solicitor-client basis as between parties.  But it is as well to remember that even where costs have been taxed as between party and party on Scale, and the winner’s solicitor was charging the winner on the same Scale, the results of the two enquiries will not necessarily be the same.  Indeed, the same may be said, even where the costs have been taxed as between party and party on the indemnity basis.  Because as between party and party, the question is what is reasonable as between the parties, whereas as between solicitor and own client, the question is what is reasonable between the solicitor and the solicitor’s own client, a test which is generally more generous to the solicitor.

The bits of Mukhtar AsJ’s reasons which I think will be of general interest to those who do not already have this stuff front of mind are as follows:

Continue reading “Party-party, solicitor-client, indemnity, special indemnity, scale costs: where are we at?”

Costs Disclosure Obligations Under the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic)

The legendary foundation author of Quick on Costs, Roger Quick, has asked me to put this old workmanlike paper on my blog so that he can cite it and link to it in the second edition of that monumental text which he is kindly working on for all our benefits.

What follows does not deal with any developments in the law since 2010, or indeed anything I have learnt since 2010, when I delivered the paper, and so it is out of date, but it might still be of use in some jurisdictions which have not adopted the Legal Profession Uniform Law or by analogy in some cases which are governed by that law.  Sorry about the formatting, which is the product of copying and pasting a Word document into WordPress.

1. Summary

This paper does not deal with contingent, or no-win no-fee retainers.  In relation to all other matters, the take-home points are these: Continue reading “Costs Disclosure Obligations Under the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic)”

Costs recovery in pro bono cases in Victorian state courts: Part 3

I was asked to talk to my colleagues at the Victorian Bar recently in relation to costs recovery in pro bono cases. It is now more certain that costs may be recovered from the other side by victorious litigants who engage their lawyers on the basis of a greater variety of pro bono arrangements. That is as a result of both recent developments in the judge-made law and changes to the Supreme and County Courts’ rules. Over the last few days, I published parts one and two of the paper I distributed. What follows is the third and final part, which considers different kinds of client-favourable costs agreements (some quite esoteric) and analyses their indemnity principle implications.  It also provides some thoughts on how to draft costs agreements for work done otherwise than on a purely commercial basis, and how to ensure counsel get paid. Part one is here and part two here

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Species of client-favourable costs agreements

Options available to lawyers who wish to do work at less than their usual rates for non-commercial reasons include:

(a) not making any arrangements as to fees at all;

(b) charging your usual rates and leaving it to your discretion whether you send out a bill, or whether you forgive some or all bills given in the event that certain outcomes obtain;promising to do the work for free;

(c) agreeing to do the work at a reduced rate;

(d) doing the work on a no win = reduced fee basis;

(e) doing the work no win = no fee;

(f) doing the work no costs order = no fee;

(g) doing the work on no actual recovery of costs / compensation / costs or compensation = no fee basis. Continue reading “Costs recovery in pro bono cases in Victorian state courts: Part 3”

Judges’ referrals to the ATO, police, Legal Services Commissioners

Often enough, judges refer the conduct of lawyers appearing before them (or disclosed by the case they are adjudicating) to the Legal Services Commissioner for investigation.  A recent example is Re Manlio (no 2) [2016] VSC 130.  Judges also refer the conduct of non-lawyer parties to investigative agencies, e.g. where a tax fraud is suggested by evidence in the case.

Generally, this is not done pursuant to any statutory directive or authority.  An exception is s. 202 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law which requires the Costs Court to refer a matter to the Legal Services Commissioner if it considers that the legal costs charged, or any other issue raised in the assessment, may amount to unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct.  (Compare s. 3.4.46 of the Legal Profession Act 2004 which authorised rather than required the Taxing Master to make a referral.)

I have never been particularly clear about the nature of such a referral, or as to the procedures which ought to be followed. Gibson DCJ set out the principles recently, at least as they apply in NSW, in Mohareb v Palmer (No. 4) [2017] NSWDC 127: Continue reading “Judges’ referrals to the ATO, police, Legal Services Commissioners”

What can barristers charge for?

I gave a presentation at the really well organised Junior Bar Conference this year.  The Bar sought questions which the junior barristers who attended wanted answers to.  One question, which I thought odd, but which I answered  earnestly, was ‘What can a barrister charge for?’  This was my answer:

The starting position is freedom of contract, such that barristers can charge for whatever they can get someone to promise to pay. The costs provisions of the LPUL (the Legal Profession Uniform Law (Victoria)) mostly do not apply in favour of commercial or government clients and commercial and government third party payers. There is newly room, therefore, for much greater creativity in contracting with such clients. Note the application of some provisions about conditional costs agreements and contingency fees, however, even in relation to such clients and such third party payers: s. 170. Continue reading “What can barristers charge for?”

Advocates’ immunity: at once more powerful and narrower than most yet understand

Advocates’ immunity was, until recently, more powerful than many lawyers were aware. Since the 1 July 2015 introduction of the Legal Profession Uniform Law and the High Court’s May 2016 decision in Attwells v Jackson Lallic Lawyers Pty Limited,[1] however, it may be narrower than many realise. And perhaps not everyone is aware that the immunity these days is very likely peculiar to Australia; it is certainly not a feature of English, American, Canadian, Continental, Indian, South African or New Zealand law.[2] Continue reading “Advocates’ immunity: at once more powerful and narrower than most yet understand”

Applications to extend time to tax lawyers’ bills: keep ’em tight

Many disputes about costs are still governed by the Legal Profession Act 2004.  It specified as the time in which to seek taxation a period of 12 months.  Where a bill is given, the 12 month period starts from the date of service of the bill.  But since Collection Point Pty Ltd v Cornwalls Lawyers Pty Ltd [2012] VSC 492, it is clear that clients have until 12 months after the service of the final bill in any particular matter to seek taxation of any previous bill.  Of course what is the final bill in the same matter is a difficult question.  What is clear is that one costs agreement may govern several matters.

Applications to extend time must be made to a Justice of the Supreme Court (as opposed to any decision maker in the Costs Court or any Associate Justice) under s. 3.4.38(6).  The law is well-summarised by John Dixon J in Rohowskyj v S Tomyn & Co [2015] VSC 511, and his Honour’s guidance about the nature of an extension of time application is useful and prone to be overlooked: Continue reading “Applications to extend time to tax lawyers’ bills: keep ’em tight”

Man fails to set aside compromise of taxation of costs despite drunkenness from allergy tablets

A man took 5 times his usual dose of phenergan before a mediation in a Costs Court matter in which he sought to tax his former solicitor’s fees.  Represented by a solicitor, he settled the taxation.  It is an interesting footnote that the man’s solicitor was from the rather wonderfully named Coolabah Law Chambers, and is described on the firm’s website as follows:

‘Although Jeff has sincere respect for the Bench, he is not afraid to argue and fight for his clients.  Jeff believes that each of his clients must be properly represented and must receive a ‘fair go’.  To appreciate Jeff’s keenness one has only to learn of one occasion when, during his closing address to the jury, Jeff performed an impersonation of Austin Powers in “The Spy Who Shagged Me”.  Jeff’s client was successful in that case!’

The man applied, unrepresented, to the Costs Court to have it set aside on the basis of the solicitor respondent to the taxation had taken unconscientious advantage of his phenergan intoxication in procuring the settlement.  The Costs Court referred the question to the Practice Court.

The Practice Court considered whether the determination of a mixed question of fact and law was one which could be the subject of a referral by the Costs Judge for ‘directions’ to a judge of the trial division under r. 63.51.  Bell J said it could.

But his Honour ruled that the Costs Court did not have jurisdiction to hear that question and so made the man commence a fresh Supreme Court proceeding for a declaration: [2015] VSC 417.  Bell J found that the Costs Court is a ‘statutory court of limited jurisdiction’.  That is interesting because presumably when the same work was done by the Taxing Master, the Supreme Court itself would have been exercising its unlimited jurisdiction so the creation of this Costs Court has complicated things.

Bell J found that the Costs Court did not have jurisdiction and so could not refer the proceeding to the Practice Court. The question which, on one characterisation, was whether the Costs Court should enforce a settlement of a Costs Court proceeding at a mediation ordered by the Costs Court was not one arising in the course of ‘assessment, settling, taxation or review of costs’ and so not within the Costs Court’s jurisdiction as described in s. 17D of the Supreme Court Act 1986.  Not even within the grant of such additional power to the Costs Court as is necessary to do its job in sub-s. (2).  Emerton J’s decision in Gadens Lawyers v Beba Enterprises [2012] VSC 519 about the Costs Court’s jurisdiction was not cited to Bell J, who reasoned:

‘It is true that, in the circumstances of the present case, the issues raised by the application to set aside the agreement are connected with the ‘assessment, settling, taxation or review of costs’ because, in great part, the agreement settled the issues relating to those matters in the Costs Court.  But a connection with those matters is not enough.  The issues must actually relate to those matters.  The issue is not that the set-aside application raises substantive issues of mixed fact and law, which it does, but that those issues do not relate to the ‘assessment, settling, taxation or review of costs’.’

So the man duly commenced a new proceeding which a judge of the Court referred back, perhaps a little paradoxically, to an Associate Justice who was not the Costs Judge for determination.  If you’re expecting a happy ending for the doughty self-represented client-plaintiff after this procedural buffeting, I can’t help you.  Derham AsJ found that the solicitors had been ignorant of any excema-related intoxication under which the plaintiff laboured and dismissed his application to set aside the settlement: EO v Bolton & Swan Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 91.