The crazy opponent

Let’s see if I can prompt any of you out of your commentless indolence with a question: what is the right thing to do when a self-represented man with self-evident psychosis characterised by florid delusions of a type which no sane person could possibly have sues your client? A friend of mine was appalled that I was considering applying for a guardianship order.  For him, to have persisted with the defence of a proceeding which probably did not exist because the man was not capable of bringing it, winning, getting costs, and executing on the judgment for costs against the man was far preferable than combining paternalism with adversarialism. The other option would be to apply for summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff was not permitted in law to commence proceedings.  But that would involve the defendant undertaking the task of proving insanity, about the last thing in the world I would ever undertake to prove.

The incapacitated client


Here’s an interesting case about lawyers, incapacitated clients, paternalism, and the right to be represented. An Alzheimers affected woman hired a beak to oppose a guardianship application brought by her brother. The court appointed another lawyer to act for her, suspecting that the man she professed to want to marry had in fact been behind the first hiring. The Court-appointed lawyer successfully applied to remove her own lawyer for a conflict of duties owed to her and to the man. An appeal court in the US capital reversed the decision, saying that free will cannot be countermanded on the basis of a hunch as to competence. Sounds like an important principle to me, else some mandarin in the Federal Government might decide that a doctor was not only an illegal alien of thoroughly rotten character but incompetent to boot and appoint a nice government lawyer resident in Nauru to act for him. The NSW Law Society has published a set of Client Capacity Guidelines for Civil and Family Law matters. The diagram featured is from it.

I acted for a solicitor sued by a former client. She said her medication affected her so at the mediation that the lawyer should pay her the difference between the millions she should have got and the paltry amount she considered she did get. I know, it didn’t make sense to me either. Anyway, during the professional negligence case, the lady seemed to flicker in and out of competence depending on whether an adjournment was needed. Continue reading “The incapacitated client”

Court of Appeal sets aside unduly harsh outcome in gross overcharging prosecution

PJQ v Law Institute of Victoria[2007] VSCA 122 is the part 1 of the last chapter in a story of good tactical plays characteristic of professional discipline specialist Sam Tatarka in the representation of a solicitor charged with gross overcharging, and applying trust monies to pay his fees without the appropriate paperwork. It sounds like a plea bargain was entered into whereby the solicitor pleaded guilty to the charges on the basis that what led to the overcharging was overzealous representation and disorganization rather than dishonesty and in return, the prosecutor — the Law Institute of Victoria — would not make submissions as to penalty. But that is speculation. When it came time for ‘sentencing’, the solicitor offered an undertaking to the Tribunal that any file in which he proposed to charge more than $20,000 would be independently costed by a costs consultant. The Tribunal enquired whether he would submit to such costing by the Law Institute’s costs assessing service. The solicitor said yes.

In Law Institute of Victoria Limited v PJQ [2005] VLPT 8, the Full Legal Profession Tribunal came down hard, accepting the expert opinion of a man without a law degree that appropriate legal costs for a proceeding of the kind in which the solicitor had represented his client were half what he had charged, and suspending the solicitor from practice for 12 months. To the surprise of the President of the Court of Appeal, the Tribunal made no mention of the alternative to suspension represented by the undertaking despite going through the ritualistic ‘no punishment happening here’ recitations (‘Our task does not involve punishment of the legal practitioner. Our task is to provide for the protection of the public, including deterrence of the legal practitioner and the profession generally from like conduct…’; ‘Conscious of the necessity to place the barrier high before depriving a member of the profession of their practising certificate we have given all the circumstances of this case the most careful and repeated consideration.’ etc.).

President Maxwell, with whom Justices Chernov and Nettle agreed, held that the Tribunal’s inexplicable failure to mention in its reasons the undertaking offer suggested that its sentencing discretion had miscarried.  His Honour actually acknowledged with refreshing forthrightness that penalisation is part of sentencing for professional discipline offences, but, by his words, sought to give real meaning to the concept that protection of the public is what professional discipline is all about, by quashing the Full Tribunal’s orders and, on resentencing, making no orders in recognition of the substantial costs already incurred by the solicitor and the partially endured suspension: Continue reading “Court of Appeal sets aside unduly harsh outcome in gross overcharging prosecution”

Depression in lawyers: Australia and America

Legal Blog Watch has sent these details spinning around America’s computer savvy legal fraternity:

Lawyers Down Under Also Down

Most of us are already familiar with the sad fact that lawyers in the United States are more prone to depression than any other profession. But I was surprised to learn from this post at Legal Pad that 16 percent of Australian lawyers suffer from severe to moderate depression, which ranks them as the most depressed of Australian professionals, just above insurance underwriters. Continue reading “Depression in lawyers: Australia and America”

A claim for solicitor to pay costs of very difficult case personally fails

FD v New South Wales [2006] NSWSC 1407 is a case where a very difficult case for the plaintiff, in which mistakes were made, did not create, in the plaintiff’s solicitor, an obligation, on the defendant’s application, to pay costs personally. It was the Armidale District Women’s Centre which sought the order against FD, a woman who believed she had been sexually abused, and that she had sustained a psychicatric illness as a result of the Women’s Centre’s counselling on the referral of the State’s Department of Community Services, whom she also sued. She certainly had a psychiatric illness. She terminated the instructions of her solicitor and counsel and thereafter did not attend court. As she was impecunious, the defendants sought costs against her former solicitor personally. Detailed reasons are given for why the former solicitor ought not personally pay the costs.

Sole practitioner gets 3.5 years’ jail for $1M trust deficiency

In R v. Gabriel W [2006] VSC 397, a solicitor pleaded guilty to 13 crimes: 9 thefts, 3 counts of obtaining financial advantage by deception, and one trust account deficiency. He received more than $1 million in trust moneys from clients and gambled it away and appears to have been sentenced on the trust account charge to 2 years’ jail. In total, the solicitor was jailed for just short of 6 years, with a non-parole period just short of three and a half years. Continue reading “Sole practitioner gets 3.5 years’ jail for $1M trust deficiency”

Excellent paper on lawyers’ discipline by Stitt QC and Lindsay SC

The New South Wales Law Society distinguishes itself amongst the Australian law societies with its in depth ethics resources. The Bar Association too is good in that regard in that state. Here is an excellent paper by R.R. Stitt QC and G.C. Lindsay SC entitled “Disciplinary Proceedings Affecting Barristers”. It’s a bit old now (June 1997, revised January 1999) but, really, not much changes in the world of professional discipline. I now acknowledge this paper as a source of various future posts. There is a Victorian equivalent, by Dr Ian Freckleton (available here until 1 February 2007, filed under 5 April 2006).

Leave granted retrospectively to file charge out of time against barrister for 1999 conduct

New South Wales Bar Association v LI (No 2) [2006] NSWADT 263

Some of the allegedly agro behaviour of a now-78-year-old barrister at an arbitration which commenced on 19 December 1999 was not appreciated and resulted in a disciplinary complaint in May 2000. In mid-2003, a charge was finally laid by the NSW Bar Association. There had been changes of personnel at the Bar Association, and 5 months of absolute inactivity while they were distracted by another matter.
The Bar Assocation did not comply with a time limit for filing the charge after having become satisfied that the Administrative Decisions Tribunal would be likely to find unsatisfactory conduct. Their solicitor was ignorant of the limitation period, and they had become used to being granted leave retrospectively as a matter of course to file out of time. The barrister had made certain admissions towards acknowledging that his conduct amounted to unsatisfactory conduct. There had been protracted negotiations towards an agreed outcome involving a private reprimand and some form of counselling. But the barrister ultimately declined to be compelled to engage in psychotherapy. The NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal ultimately granted the Bar Association’s application for retrospective leave to file the charge about 6 months late. Continue reading “Leave granted retrospectively to file charge out of time against barrister for 1999 conduct”

The XY saga of a formerly mentally ill applicant for admission

It is an intriguing saga which is recounted in Board of Examiners v XY [2006] VSCA 190, involving the application for admission to practice by a woman with a criminal record and a history of mental illness. According to psychiatrists, by the time of an appeal to the Supreme Court, her mental illness was over. So the Court overturned the Board of Examiners’ original decision, though acknowledging it had been correct at the time. The Court of Appeal recounted the facts (but did not reproduce the intriguing fact noted by the trial judge that much of the self-harm inflicted by the woman occurred in the toilets of court buildings in the city): Continue reading “The XY saga of a formerly mentally ill applicant for admission”

Depressed partner who stole $275,000 gets suspended sentence

R v G*rant [2006] VSC 235
A property lawyer who was a partner in a two partner, 3 office firm, became depressed and failed to lodge tax returns for 9 years. When the ATO cracked down on lawyers, he lodged the returns late, and became liable for about $200,000 in tax, interest, and penalties.

He stole from his clients’ monies he held in trust. He forged documents. He mortgaged his elderly parents’ unit without their knowledge in a flagrant breach of their trust. He paid the proceeds to the ATO. The Law Institute commenced an audit of his trust account following a complaint. Shortly afterwards, he made a very serious attempt at suicide which was averted only through his wife’s intuition. He voluntarily surrendered his practising certificate. He confessed everthing to the Law Institute, and was genuinely contrite. He had given up the law and found a job as a telemarketer.

A year after voluntarily surrendering it, VCAT suspended his practising certificate for 5 years and ordered that he apply thereafter only for an employee’s practising certificate for a further 5 years. That was in March. At some stage, the Fidelity Fund paid back the clients. To the criminal charges, he pleaded guilty. Strong pyschiatric evidence of very profound clinical depression was adduced. The sentencing judge accepted the solicitor’s genuine intention eventually to repay the whole amount paid out by the Fidelity Fund. The solicitor’s counsel, Lex Lasry QC instructed by Rob Stary & Associates, successfully submitted that the sentence — 3 years’ imprisonment — should be wholely suspended: because the need for specific deterrence was nil, because of the early guilty plea and full cooperation, because of the remorse and genuine intention to repay the Fidelity Fund, and because a person with a serious mental illness is not an appropriate vehicle for general deterrence. As to the legal principles involved, Habersberger J said: Continue reading “Depressed partner who stole $275,000 gets suspended sentence”

Disciplinary tribunal can’t find misconduct by commission of crime

Legal Practitioners Conduct Board v Ardalich [2005] SASC 278

A solicitor suffered from what used to be known as “manic depression“. He had been charged with criminal offences of forgery but not convicted on mental grounds. The South Australian Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal heard charges that the solicitor was guilty of misconduct in having committed different crimes which had never been prosected. The Full Court of the Supreme Court of South Australia held that the Tribunal had over-reached itself in purporting to make findings about the commissions of crimes by the solicitor, but said that acts (admitted by the solicitor) that would be criminal unless met by the defence of insanity were enough to warrant a finding of unprofessional conduct, the purpose of which was not the punishment of the solicitor but the protection of society. So the Full Court struck him off the roll of practitioners. (See also the previous post).

Continue reading “Disciplinary tribunal can’t find misconduct by commission of crime”

Insanity not a defence to professional discipline proceedings

Legal Practitioners Conduct Board v Ardalich [2005] SASC 278

The solicitor referred to in the next post could not escape a finding of unprofessional conduct because of his mental state, even though the species of unprofessional conduct alleged against him was the commission of serious criminal offences to which insanity was a defence. The South Australian Court of Appeal explained: Continue reading “Insanity not a defence to professional discipline proceedings”