What, exactly, is a reckless contravention of a conduct rule?

Under the Legal Practice Act, 1996, the distinction between what was then called ‘misconduct’ and what was then called ‘unsatisfactory conduct’ of the kind constituted by a breach of a conduct rule or of a provision of the Act, depended on whether the breach was wilful or reckless, in which case it was misconduct, or not, in which case it might amount to unsatisfactory conduct.  That distinction was abandoned in the Legal Profession Act, 2004, but continues to be used by VCAT’s Legal Practice List as a guide to determining whether a breach of the rules or the Act amounts to the more or less serious of the categories of disciplinary wrongdoing, now known as ‘professional misconduct’ and ‘unsatisfactory professional conduct’.  The meaning of ‘reckless’ in this context has long been governed by an unreported decision of JD Phillips J, Zaitman and Law Institute of Victoria, Supreme Court of Victoria, 9 December 2004.

It was summarised in the biggest Victorian lawyers’ discipline case in recent years, Victorian Bar Inc v CEM QC [2006] VCAT 1417, and the relevant passage is a much easier way to work out what ‘reckless’ means in this context than a consideration of Zaitman’s Case which does not give up its essence easily.  The whole passage is set out below, but the take home point is that:

‘in order to establish recklessness, it is necessary to show that [the lawyer] appreciated the risk that their conduct in a particular instance might possibly amount to a breach of the rule, and knowing that risk, proceeded, intending to take that risk. In circumstances where [the lawyer] holds a bona fide belief that their conduct does not amount to a contravention of the rule, it cannot be reckless for [him or her] to proceed.’

Continue reading “What, exactly, is a reckless contravention of a conduct rule?”

Honest and reasonable mistake as a defence to disciplinary charges

Senior Member Howell decided last year in Legal Services Commissioner v RMB [2010] VCAT 51 that there is a mens rea element to professional discipline offences under the Legal Profession Act, 2004, in that there is a defence of ‘honest and reasonable mistake’.  That fascinates me, since under the previous Act, misconduct and unsatisfactory conduct was often delineated by the presence or absence of knowledge that the conduct engaged in breached a norm of conduct. Conduct in ignorance of its wrongfulness was punishable as unsatisfactory conduct.  Now, though, there is no knowledge element built into the definitions of the 2004 Act, and there seems to be no particular reason why the concept of honest and reasonable mistake which has been imported from the criminal law, might not apply equally to cases of professional misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct. Continue reading “Honest and reasonable mistake as a defence to disciplinary charges”

Disciplinary charges and intentional wrongdoing

Update, 4 December 2009: see now Legal Services Commissioner v Madden (No 2) [2008] QCA 301.  What the Queensland Court of Appeal said there about Walter’s Case, the subject of this post, is reproduced at the end of the post.

Original post: Does a lawyer’s Bureau de Spank have to say in a charge in a disciplinary prosecution that the norm allegedly transgressed was transgressed deliberately or recklessly, if that’s what they desire to prove?  In the old days, deliberate or reckless transgression was what distinguished professional misconduct from unsatisfactory conduct, the lesser form of disciplinary offence.  Nowadays, it is only a ‘useful guide’ in distinguishing the two.  So a finding of misconduct might, theoretically, be made in respect of conduct by a person ignorant of the norm transgressed, or who simply made a mistake about a relevant fact. And so there is a particular reason now why it is desirable to know whether dishonesty is alleged, making it more important than ever to be informed by the charge if the Bureau is going to contend at the hearing that the solicitor intentionally did wrong, or was dishonest.

Back to 1988 and a unanimous High Court decision of the Mason Court which did not make it to the CLRs and which I read for the first time only recently: Walter v Queensland Law Society [1998] HCA 8; (1988) 77 ALR 228; 62 ALJR 153.  J R S Forbes’s Justice in Tribunals (2nd ed., 2006) suggests at p. 132 that it stands for the proposition that if a professional regulator wants to establish dishonesty or wilful wrongdoing it should say so, also citing Melling v O’Reilly, Appeal 6/91 Misconduct Tribunal, Criminal Justice Commission (Qld), 9 December 1991. Continue reading “Disciplinary charges and intentional wrongdoing”

Latest word on burden of proof in professional discipline ‘prosecutions’

In this post, I just reproduce what Deputy President Dwyer said recently about the burden of proof, right to silence, and inferences which may be drawn from the fact of the exercise by a solicitor of the right to silence. He said it in the context of a hard-fought hearing into the conduct of Kylie’s one-time lawyer, Michael Brereton, reported on in the previous post. Interestingly, the Tribunal was not critical of the solicitor’s decision not to give evidence, but asserted that it was free to draw adverse inferences against the solicitor under the rule in Jones v Dunkel, and did so with gusto, drawing support from Woods v Legal Ombudsman [2004] VSCA 247, and Golem v Transport Accident Commission [No2] [2002] VCAT 736.)

What Mr Dwyer said was: Continue reading “Latest word on burden of proof in professional discipline ‘prosecutions’”

Solicitor reprimanded for letting conveyancer steal monies from his office account

Legal Services Commissioner v WP [2008] VCAT 983 was a guilty plea. A sole practitioner and ex-cop shared offices with a Turkish conveyancer named Dervish. The solicitor practised as a sole practitioner under the name “Thomasz and Dervish”, even though Mr Dervish’s only connection with the legal practice was that he shared premises with it. The solicitor allowed the conveyancer to become a signatory to his office account (i.e. not his trust account), he said, because utilities bills were made out to both of them. Over a period of one and a half years, Dervish put more than $750,000 of the conveyancing business’s clients’ funds through the solicitor’s office account. Dervish misappropriated about $180,000. The solicitor said though he was aware that the solicitor from whom he had bought the practice, who had also shared premises with Dervish, had had an issue with Dervish in which a substantial sum of money went missing, he never noticed these transactions. He pleaded guilty to misconduct under the Legal Practice Act, 1996 constituted by a reckless failure to comply with this practice rule:

“A practitioner must ensure that each part of the practitioner’s legal practice is, at all times, carried on or effectively supervised by a legal practitioner.”

Vice-President Ross adopted the solicitor’s suggestion as to an appropriate disposition, making the following orders:

Continue reading “Solicitor reprimanded for letting conveyancer steal monies from his office account”

Tariff up for not responding to demand for information by Bureau de Spank

In Legal Services Commissioner v MG [2007] VCAT 1491, the lawyer failed to respond to letters demanding a written response to a complaint by another lawyer. The Commissioner wrote on 18 January 2007, 16 February 2007, 23 March 2007 and 1 April 2007. In other words, a complaint, quite possibly lodged last year, has languished uninvestigated for 8 months. The lawyer proffered no explanation for his breaches of the Act, so that Member Butcher decided, quite appropriately, that this persistent silence by the lawyer amounted to professional misconduct rather than unsatisfactory professional conduct. Though the dichotomy between wilful and innocent breaches of the Act which used to distinguish unsatisfactory conduct from misconduct under the old Act has been dispensed with, Mr Butcher still found those concepts of assistance in deciding whether this was the lesser or the more serious of the two conduct offences.

The fine was $1,500 and the costs $2,500. In the period to the end of the financial year before the one just gone, the going tariff seemed to be $500 and $1,000 in costs, as I noted in an earlier post.

MG gets the prize for first misconduct ‘conviction’ under the Legal Profession Act, 2004 (so far as I know), but not the first ‘conviction’; another solicitor was convicted of unsatisfactory conduct on a similar charge a week or two ago.

Misconduct charge no. 21 against Victorian silk stayed as abuse of process

The latest and possibly last chapter in the tribulations of Victoria’s most senior female silk is to be found in M v VCAT [2007] VSC 89, a decision of Justice Mandie. The barrister was charged on 4 July 2005 with 24 charges of misconduct, and ended up after a hearing of the first half of the charges with a finding of only 4 counts of unsatisfactory conduct. All but one of the second half were abandoned, but the Bar, as prosecutor, sought to amend the last remaining charge so as to substitute an allegation of unsatisfactory conduct for the original charge of misconduct. VCAT found it had no power to grant leave to amend a charge, and the barrister convinced the Supreme Court to stay the hearing of the last charge as an abuse of process, VCAT having refused to do so. It was an abuse because the Bar wished to proceed with the misconduct charge not so as to make out an allegation of misconduct, but so as to provide a vehicle for a finding of unsatisfactory conduct under a statutory power which empowered VCAT to make a finding of unsatisfactory conduct after hearing a misconduct charge. Justice Mandie found:

‘[58] … It would bring the administration of justice into disrepute to permit the Bar to prosecute a charge of misconduct while at the same time saying the opposite, namely, that it was not advancing a case of misconduct or seeking a finding of misconduct. It is an entirely different position to that which might have arisen had the charge been proceeded with and, after all the evidence was in, the Bar conceded that the evidence supported only a lesser charge [i.e. unsatisfactory conduct]. The use of a misconduct charge simply to obtain a finding of a lesser charge when the case for misconduct is completely disavowed before the hearing commences is, I think, a misuse of the statutory procedure and, indeed, as the plaintiff submitted, contrary to the spirit of the Act, given the requirement that the Bar be satisfied when bringing the charge that there is a reasonable likelihood that the Tribunal would find the practitioner guilty of misconduct. If the Bar has reached the view, as it has, that a case of misconduct cannot be made out and it does not seek to do so, such a charge ought not as a matter of justice and fairness be heard.’ Continue reading “Misconduct charge no. 21 against Victorian silk stayed as abuse of process”

Epic battle re trust monies results in misconduct finding against barrister

Victorian Bar Inc v DAP No. 6 [2006] VCAT 1226

A barrister banked $50,000 into his personal account, arguing that it was a “retainer” and not monies held on account of future fees. VCAT found that it could not have been a retainer because that is a modest fee paid to a barrister to prevent them from acting against the payer, and the barrister already could not act against the complainant at the time of the payment because of his close involvement as his counsel over many years prior to the payment. The difference between “wilful” and “reckless” breach of the Legal Practice Act, 1996 or rules of conduct was explained. The interlocutory decisions in this matter were digested earlier. Continue reading “Epic battle re trust monies results in misconduct finding against barrister”

Workcover case trust transfer costs solicitor $10,000

Law Institute v SA [2006] VCAT 442

On 21 March 2006, Mr Butcher found a solicitor guilty of three counts of unsatisfactory conduct (maximum fine of $1,000 and fine of $500 for taking fees out of workers’ compensation settlement, and $500 for admitted breach of the costs disclosure rules under s. 86 of the Legal Practice Act, 1996 respectively) and one of misconduct ($1,000). Costs of $6,740 were ordered in favour of the Law Institute. Accordingly, for failing to comply with costs disclosures, and then taking costs which he was apparently entitled to out of the settlement monies, the solicitor was ordered to pay a total of just less than $10,000. There was a stay of 6 months. Continue reading “Workcover case trust transfer costs solicitor $10,000”