How to interview a witness who might be a defendant

In Victoria v Villan [2022] VSCA 106, the Court of Appeal gave guidance to practitioners in relation to the treatment of non-party witnesses in civil cases where the criminal prosecution of the witness is on the cards, after self-incrimination issues derailed a jury trial in a historical sexual abuse case, occasioning its stay.

Given that the statutory provision in question — s 128 of the Evidence Act 2008 — extends beyond the privilege against self-incrimination to the privilege against penalties, the guidance must also apply where a proposed witness in civil proceedings who is a professional might expose themselves to a penalty in the form of disciplinary sanction by giving evidence in civil proceedings. An employee solicitor or the director of a defendant law practice in a negligence suit, should be advised by the defendant’s (insurer’s) lawyers of the possibility of disciplinary sanction, and of the possibility that evidence called by the defendant might affect any subsequent disciplinary investigation and prosecution, since the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner and VCAT alike have power to issue fines for proven misconduct, an archetypal penalty.

Indeed, in Oldham v Law Institute of Victoria [2012] VCAT 571 (a disciplinary prosecution despite the counter-intuitive title of the proceeding), Judge Bowman recorded that Terry Forrest J had in earlier related civil proceedings ‘completely understandably and very fairly’ refused to allow the cross-examination of the practitioner who was personally a respondent to a non-party costs order, on the basis that he should not prejudice himself in relation to any future disciplinary investigation into the same conduct.  (Such an investigation might readily have been appreciated to have been on the cards, because his Honour was the person who initiated it by referring the practitioner to the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner.)

Continue reading “How to interview a witness who might be a defendant”

Disciplinary prosecutions arising out of criminal convictions and civil findings against professionals

In disciplinary proceedings, prosecutors often wrongly assume that findings in prior decisions (usually criminal convictions) are both admissible and un-challengeable by the respondent.  Neither is true, however, at least where what is relied on by the prosecutor in the disciplinary case is something more than the fact of the conviction (e.g. the fact of the conduct which gave rise to it). Sudath v Health Care Complaints Commission (2012) 84 NSWLR 474 is much-cited, but has flown under the radar in Victoria and I must confess that I was ignorant of it until recently. It says as a matter of ratio decidendi that a professional in a disciplinary case is entitled to call evidence to contradict findings made in a previous criminal prosecution, and to do so is not of itself an abuse of process.  The same must be true, a fortiori, I would suggest, in relation to findings in a civil case.

Section 91 of the Evidence Act 2008 is often forgotten, too.  It says that evidence of a Court’s or tribunal’s decision or a finding of fact is not admissible to prove the existence of a fact that was in issue in that proceeding. Not only are reasons usually hearsay and opinion evidence, but the tender of reasons to prove the truth of what they record is specifically prohibited, except to the extent necessary to establish a res judicata or issue estoppel.  Where the common law applies, an even stricter result obtains by virtue of the rule in Hollington v F Hawthorn & Co Ltd [1943] KB 587.

I’m interested to know of how other jurisdictions deal with these questions, which also crop up in personal costs order cases, also discussed below.

Continue reading “Disciplinary prosecutions arising out of criminal convictions and civil findings against professionals”

The Civil Procedure Act’s overarching obligation to keep costs proportionate

The Civil Procedure Act 2010 applies to proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court, County Court, and Supreme Court but not federal courts or VCAT. Its overarching purpose is to

‘facilitate the just, efficient, timely and costs effective resolution of the real issues in dispute’: s. 7. Continue reading “The Civil Procedure Act’s overarching obligation to keep costs proportionate”

Lawyers withdrawing ‘guilty pleas’ in disciplinary prosecutions at first instance and on appeal

BRJ v Council of the New South Wales Bar Association [2016] NSWSC 146 is the subject of this sister post about the permissible use of evidence of mental impairment.  Two aspects of it deserve their own separate post.  The respondent barrister changed her plea twice, once after the liability phase of the hearing but before the decision as to liability was given and once the night before the hearing of her appeal in the Supreme Court of NSW.  Each time, she was allowed to do so. Continue reading “Lawyers withdrawing ‘guilty pleas’ in disciplinary prosecutions at first instance and on appeal”

Distinguishing between civil and disciplinary complaints

In the latest Byrne v Marles ([2009] VSC 210), Justice Beach seems to have found that any particular allegation made by a complainant may properly be characterised as both a civil and a disciplinary complaint.  If the Legal Services Commissioner receives a complaint, she must investigate it to the extent it is a disciplinary complaint and must try to settle it to the extent it is a civil complaint.  There is no particular difficulty where two allegations are found in one complaint document, and one is characterised as a civil complaint and another is characterised as a disciplinary complaint.  In my experience, that is what the Commissioner always does: she chooses between the two alternatives in relation to any one allegation as if they are mutually exclusive.

Since ‘any genuine dispute’ between the complainant and the lawyer complained about is a civil complaint, however, one might think that all disciplinary complaints in which the complainant has a dispute with the lawyer complained about will amount to both a civil and a disciplinary complaint.  And since an allegation will be a disciplinary complaint if it is of conduct which ‘falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that a member of the public is entitled to expect of a reasonably competent’ lawyer, there will be many civil complaints which will also be disciplinary complaints.

In such a circumstance, unless the Commissioner summarily dismisses the whole complaint under s. 4.2.10, she must try to settle it (insofar as it is a civil complaint), and (insofar as it is a disciplinary complaint) she must investigate it.

If Justice Beach’s logic is applied, profound challenges await the Commissioner.  They are inherent in the Act’s injunction in relation to one dispute to investigate it in the public interest with a view to prosecuting and penalising the lawyer, while at the same time trying to resolve the dispute between the complainant and the lawyer.  Most obviously, what is the Commissioner to do about s. 4.3.5(4)? It says:

‘Evidence of anything said or done in the course of attempting to resolve a civil dispute is not admissible in proceedings before [VCAT] or any other proceedings relating to the subject-matter of the dispute.’

Are there to be two sets of responses, in one of which (in the civil complaint) the lawyer makes socially appropriate concessions, apologises, and agrees to pay money in return for confidentiality, and in the other of which (the disciplinary complaint), the lawyer takes all appropriate technical points and, while being fully frank and open as required by the Act, concedes nothing? And imagine the disquiet the lawyer’s insurer will have knowing that the Commissioner will be able to compel the provision of answers from a practitioner, as if interrogating him, in the disciplinary complaint which will run parallel with the professional negligence claim constituting the civil complaint. Continue reading “Distinguishing between civil and disciplinary complaints”

Criminal prosecutions (-not) by disciplinary authorities

Updates, 13 June and 24 October 2012: See now Hagipantelis v Legal Services Commissioner of New South Wales [2010] NSWCA 79 from [23] and Legal Profession Complaints Committee v Masten [2010] WASAT 47.

Original post: The Building Practitioners Board is the Bureau de Spank for builders. It initiated an inquiry into whether a builder had breached a provision of the Building Act, 1993 (Vic.).  The provision prohibited builders from building without a permit.  Breach is a crime, but the Board is not entitled to prosecute offences under the Act, for which there is a limitation period of 3 years from the end of the building.  The Builder applied for judicial review of the decision to hold the inquiry, and the outcome is reported as Rodwell v Building Practitioners Board [2009] VCS 146.  He said that a disciplinary hearing into whether he had committed a crime was ‘a proceeding for an offence’.  If he was right, then the limitation period, which was attached to that concept, had already run, and the Board did not have the power to hold the inquiry.  Justice Hollingworth held against the builder. Continue reading “Criminal prosecutions (-not) by disciplinary authorities”

Solicitor gets three year break for multiple conflict findings

In Legal Services Commissioner v DJMH [2008] VCAT 2301, Deputy President McNamara’s tribunal ordered the solicitor not to practice before 1 July 2011 for multiple findings of acting in the face of a conflict.  It is unfortunate that the reasons for decision do not allow an understanding of what was alleged.  It had something to do with conflicts of duties in lending transactions described as ‘very serious indeed’.  The gravamen of the charges, according to the Deputy President was that the solicitor: Continue reading “Solicitor gets three year break for multiple conflict findings”

The practising certificate suspension challenge that went wrong

Update, 8 November 2008: When I wrote this post, the Court of Appeal had authoritatively answered another of the questions posed below, about the penalty privileges, but I had not yet read the case, CT v Medical Practitioners Board [2008] VSCA 157.  Now I have, and I have posted here about it.

Original post: WPE v Law Institute of Victoria [2008] VCAT 1277 shows that you’ve got to be careful when challenging a decision to cancel or suspend your practising certificate because if the Law Institute wants to sic you, they can seek to establish misconduct against you in the merits review proceedings, and if they get up, VCAT has the same suite of powers as it would following a disciplinary prosecution: s. 2.4.37(3) Legal Profession Act, 2004.

Sometimes, rather than engage in litigation, it is better to play the game, take an early long service leave, help some orphans, have a moment on the road to Damascus, and send in a well thought out application for a new certificate at a well judged time in the future. Saves a lot of costs and maybe a few orphans,  lets you have a holiday at the same time, and means there’s never a hearing into the conduct which gave rise to the suspension and/or cancellation. Spend half the money you would have spent on lawyers on a public relations consultant and a lobbyist and you’re doing even better. Other times it’s better to avoid merits review — the obvious remedy specifically provided for in the Legal Profession Act, 2004 — and go for judicial review proper (a course which we now know since Zarah G-W’s cases is kosher; c.f. Perkins v Victorian Bar Inc [2007] VSC 70), especially where the decision making process leading up to the suspension or cancellation is dubious.  But sometimes, if a disciplinary charge seems imminent, the question of costs referred to below might recommend getting in early with an application for review of a practising certificate decision which might prevent the laying of disciplinary proceedings proper and lead to adjudication of the issues in a more costs friendly regime.  There is much to weigh up in choosing one’s approach when challenging a practising certificate decision.

How these hybrid administrative law and quasi-criminal proceedings are supposed to pan out has been a bit of a mystery to date.  They are a new concept.  Maybe they are unique — who knows?  Anyway, there was certainly no analogue under the Legal Practice Act, 1996.  Who bears the burden of proof?  Who should go first?  Does the privilege against penalties protect the lawyer?  Is it an inquisitorial or adversarial proceeding?  Should the matters the Law Institute will argue should found disciplinary findings be the subject of properly particularised charges?  What about costs?  Can the Law Institute apply for disciplinary findings at all, or is it a jurisdiction which must be invoked by VCAT?  Judge Ross provided answers to a couple of these questions only in this case. Continue reading “The practising certificate suspension challenge that went wrong”

When will a professional discipline proceeding be stayed pending overlapping criminal charges?

Post updated 7 April 2013: See now ML v Australian Securities and Investments Commission [2013] NSWSC 283 (application to disbar liquidator not stayed pending related criminal proceedings which were ‘on the cards’: suggested that a secrecy regime could be imposed in respect of the disciplinary proceedings so as to protect the liquidator in the criminal proceedings).

Post updated 1 March 2013: See also Re AWB Limited [2008] VSC 473.

Original post: Dedicated readers will already have been following the saga of the misconduct prosecution of Kylie Minogue’s one-time lawyer. Casual readers can lap it all up here. Deputy President Dwyer’s reasons for refusing to stay the disciplinary proceedings have hit the internet: Legal Services Commissioner v MB [2008] VCAT 1341. For some reason, the lawyer adduced into evidence a letter from the Australian Crime Commission which said that there was no overlap between the subject matter of the disciplinary charges and the subject matter of the Australian Crime Commission’s investigation, ‘pulling the rug’, as Deputy President Dwyer put it, from the lawyer’s own case. Apart from some newspaper articles suggesting that up to 50 people might be prosecuted as a result of ‘Project Wickenby’, there was not a lot of evidence that the solicitor was going to be prosecuted imminently or otherwise. So it is not an especially interesting decision, legally. It is helpful to have a VCAT decision which rehearses the authorities on the question of stays pending criminal proceedings in their application to disciplinary proceedings, though. Continue reading “When will a professional discipline proceeding be stayed pending overlapping criminal charges?”

Confirmed: your client can privately prosecute you for misconduct

Acting President Bowman handed down a decision on Friday in Cedric Naylor’s Case [2007] VCAT 958 approving the existing practice of VCAT, and before it the Legal Profession Tribunal, of entertaining professional misconduct allegations against lawyers by their clients as part of applications to set aside costs agreements. Entertaining them, that is, outside the disciplinary investigation and prosecution procedures in Part 5 of the old Legal Practice Act, 1996, and regardless of whether those who otherwise prosecute disciplinary charges would have brought a charge.  Under the old Act, a costs agreement could be set aside upon proof by the client of (i) dishonesty in the solicitor, or (ii) misconduct or unprofessional conduct in the retainer, or (iii) a want of fairness and reasonableness of the agreement. Judge Bowman  ruled that it was not necessary for the solicitor to be found guilty of misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct in the ordinary way, by a prosecution by a legal regulator under the disciplinary provisionso of the Act before the client could rely on the second ground, but he did say that if misconduct is made out in an old Act case, then no disciplinary consequences such as a suspension of a practising certificate can follow in that hearing.  But, armed with the result in the s. 103 application, there seems to be nothing to stop the client sending the reasons in to the regulator and requesting investigation of the conduct already determined to be misconduct by the body which would hear any charge flowing from the investigation. And so, of course, there seems to be nothing to stop the client from threatening to do so in little spats over fees.

Continue reading “Confirmed: your client can privately prosecute you for misconduct”

Can you be prosecuted for mere negligence?

There is no doubt that mere negligence cannot constitute misconduct in the traditional concept of that expression: Myers v Elman [1940] AC 282 at 288; Re Hodgekiss (1959) 62 SR(NSW) 340 at 351; Re Veron (1966) 84 WN (Pt 1) (NSW) 136 at 143 (CA); Re Miles (1966) 84 WN (Pt1) (NSW) 163 at 173 (CA); Pillai v Messiter (No 2) (1989) 16 NSWLR 197. Gross negligence, or a pattern of simple negligence, may amount to misconduct. And to say that mere negligence cannot constitute misconduct is not to say that things characterisable as negligence and things characterisable as professional misconduct are mutually exclusive. Delay is a different kettle of fish: that can certainly be misconduct. This post looks at some modern definitions of unsatisfactory professional conduct and cites authorities for the blindingly common sense proposition that mere negligence without more ought not found any disciplinary charge against a lawyer. Continue reading “Can you be prosecuted for mere negligence?”

Daming He’s experience of the legal regulators

The unsuccessful complaint to the Legal Ombudsman, referred by her to the Victorian Bar, took more than 5 months to complete. Then the Law Institute complaint went on for about 2 months. The Legal Profession Tribunal made a decision 10 months later, the Full Legal Profession Tribunal 3 months later again. The Court of Appeal process took two and a quarter years. Continue reading “Daming He’s experience of the legal regulators”

The subject matter of Daming He’s complaint

Update: 17 January 2008 VCAT has re-heard this case, and has made different findings of fact from some of those recounted below. See He v  A & Co Pty Ltd [2008] VCAT 3.

Original post

(This is part 2 of the post about He v A & Co Pty Ltd [2006] VSCA 150; [2006] VSCA 235. Part 1 is here.)

Mr He had a dispute with the insurer of the negligent driver who caused the collision which damaged his car. The insurer accepted its driver was at fault. The dispute was only about how much compensation Mr He was legally entitled to. Whatever a court would order the negligent driver to pay, the insurer would pay Mr He, at least in theory. Most “crash and bash cases”, as lawyers call them never get to court. His did. The insurer said his car was only worth $800 at the time of the accident, and since repairs would cost $4,000, they would take his car and sell it for scrap, and pay him its value. They said it was an economic write off. Continue reading “The subject matter of Daming He’s complaint”

Justice Gillard gives the Law Institute a bloody belting

SPB v Law Institute of Victoria [2005] VSC 509 (Gillard J, 12 December 2005) s. 151(3)(c)

Solicitors who read the back pages of the RPA News (dubbed the “sports pages”) well know the schadenfreude associated with the decisions of professional regulators. Rarely does one have such an enhanced opportunity for guilty pleasure in the public excoriation of a regulator as in this decision, however. His Honour railed especially about the adverse finding made on the papers without interviewing the former client or having her confirm her allegations by statutory declaration.

Continue reading “Justice Gillard gives the Law Institute a bloody belting”

A very generous approach to a Hungerfords damages claim tacked onto a misconduct prosecution

Law Institute v KTBH [2006] VCAT 350 (Senior Member Howell)

There were separate disciplinary and negligence proceedings against the solicitor over the same facts. At the end of the disciplinary hearing, and on the basis of the prosecutrix’s submissions, Mr Howell decided to determine the negligence case and get the whole thing over and done with. He found there had been a delay by the solicitor in getting a woman compensation. Though VCAT was not empowered to order interest on the woman’s claim, he gave her Hungerfords damages, that is, damages in the nature of interest, and calculated the damages by reference to the penalty interest rate. This note is critical of that decision.

Continue reading “A very generous approach to a Hungerfords damages claim tacked onto a misconduct prosecution”

Non-disclosure of own negligence founds unsatisfactory conduct conviction

Law Institute of Victoria v PJR [2006] VCAT 293 (see the associated pecuniary loss dispute decision here)

The Law Institute prosecuted a solicitor for misconduct constituted by simply missing a time limit. That failed, as did most of the other charges. But he was convicted of unsatisfactory conduct in not telling his client for two years that he had missed a crucial time limit, giving rise to a conflict between duty and self-interest. After 3 days of hearings, the solicitor was fined $1,000 and ordered to contribute only a fraction of the Law Insitute’s costs.

Continue reading “Non-disclosure of own negligence founds unsatisfactory conduct conviction”