A reprimand is not just a slap over the wrist; the value of precedents in disciplinary sentencing

In Peeke v Medical Board of Victoria [1994] VicSC 7 at p. 6, Marks J commented in a judgment substituting a reprimand for the inferior tribunal’s 6 month suspension that a reprimand should not be regarded as a trivial penalty:

‘I have mentioned that the Board referred to a reprimand as trivialising a serious lapse in professional standards.  I am not able to agree with the Board that a reprimand is a trivial penalty.  It may be inappropriate or inadequate in many circumstances, but a reprimand, to a professional person, has the potential for serious adverse implications.’ Continue reading “A reprimand is not just a slap over the wrist; the value of precedents in disciplinary sentencing”

Disciplinary costs insurance unavailable to solicitors, for now

Readers of my last post but one would be forgiven for thinking that the cover for costs of disciplinary investigation and prosecution referred to is available to Victorian solicitors as well as for Victorian barristers.  Turns out it is not, for the time being.  Doctors and solicitors are different in that regard.  It would be remiss of me not to mention that that gentleman of the profession, Geoff Gronow, provides invaluable free support to solicitor members of the Law Institute of Victoria who find themselves the subject of a disciplinary complaint in his capacity as LIV Members’ Advocate.  And in Queensland, the Law Society has a scheme which provides free legal advice to solicitors who receive a letter from the Legal Ombudsman or the Law Society in a disciplinary investigation.

I’m sorry for the confusion I must have engendered.  But the interesting thing is that the post obviously struck a chord, to an extent which surprised me and, it would seem, certain others. There are a lot of solicitors who would love to have this cover. Paddy Oliver at Lexcel, a risk management consultancy for solicitors, bemoans lawyers’ abject failure to manage what he refers to as ‘regulatory risk’. Perhaps solicitors are in fact more interested than they are given credit for, but frustrated by a lack of easy fix. So great has the interest been that Affinity had a fresh look at extending the cover to Victorian solicitors, and while it was doing so I held off on publishing this clarificatory post, but it seems that it’s not to be, for now at least.  But if it is an issue that is important to you, tell Affinity that it is something you would purchase, and raise it with Raynah Tang, the (rather good) President of the Law Institute: @livpresident. Continue reading “Disciplinary costs insurance unavailable to solicitors, for now”

Legal Services Commissioner’s obligations of fairness

I have previously reported Justice Finkelstein’s views about the obligations of those who prosecute proceedings for a penalty (‘‘I would hold that a regulatory body that brings a civil proceeding to recover a penalty is under an obligation similar to that owed by a prosecutor to an accused.’). Barristers who are briefed by the Legal Services Commissioner in disciplinary proceedings have the same obligations as barristers briefed to prosecute criminal proceedings.  But until tonight I was unaware that VCAT’s predecessor, the Legal Profession Tribunal, had actually indicated that the regulator himself (as opposed to his lawyers) owe obligations.  In Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd v Kaine [2001] VLPT 16, Senior Member Howell,  Victoria’s most experienced decision maker in legal disciplinary matters, said of the Law Institute (which was for a while formally named ‘Victorian Lawyers RPA Ltd’) that it owed:

‘the obligations normally owed by a prosecutor, such as the obligation to bring to the attention of the Tribunal or to the attention of the practitioner any evidence that might be favourable to the practitioner’.

Continue reading “Legal Services Commissioner’s obligations of fairness”

Insurance cover for disciplinary investigations and prosecutions

In the financial year ending 30 June 2012, the Legal Services Commissioner in Victoria received 1,982 new complaints following 5,316 enquiries. When representing lawyers in disciplinary investigations and prosecutions, my fees generally come out of their own pockets. I have seen lawyers bankrupted by disciplinary prosecutions and others who have left practice and sought psychiatric assistance because of the trauma associated with them. This post provides some case studies of how ugly disciplinary investigations can get and points out that there is insurance available for the defence costs. Continue reading “Insurance cover for disciplinary investigations and prosecutions”

More on solicitors’ obligations to pay counsel’s fees

Council of the Law Society of New South Wales v JAX [2012] NSWADT 283 is a case in which the solicitor was disciplined for paying himself out of fees provided to him by his client for payment of counsel’s fees.  Ultimately he went bankrupt and did not pay the fees. See also this earlier post on this subject.  The decision also represents yet another admonition to pleaders of disciplinary charges to plead dishonesty expressly if they intend to allege it.

There were the following agreed facts: Continue reading “More on solicitors’ obligations to pay counsel’s fees”

VCAT’s President, Justice Garde, lays out the law of the rule in Briginshaw v Briginshaw

As I mention in this post, Justice Garde, VCAT’s new President, set out the law relating to the application in cases involving allegations of serious wrongdoing of the civil standard of proof helpfully and authoritatively in GLS v PLP [2012] VCAT 221:

‘The standard of proof

  1. This case concerns serious allegations levelled against Mr PLP, the principal of a suburban law firm, and a practising solicitor. Proof of the issues in this proceeding is at the civil standard – the balance of probabilities. Mr Selimi of counsel for Mr PLP submitted that the matter is a grave matter and has the potential to cause serious consequences to Mr PLP’s professional and personal reputation. He also contends, and counsel for Ms GLS accepts, that I should apply the principles outlined by Dixon J (as he then was) in Briginshaw v Briginshaw.[15]
  2. The key passage of Briginshaw is often quoted:[16]

The seriousness of an allegation made, the inherent unlikelihood of an occurrence of a given description, or the gravity of the consequences flowing from a particular finding are considerations which must affect the answer to the question whether the issue has been proved to the reasonable satisfaction of the tribunal. Continue reading “VCAT’s President, Justice Garde, lays out the law of the rule in Briginshaw v Briginshaw”

Another solicitor struck off for not paying counsel’s fees

A South Australian solicitor has been struck off for a panoply of wrongs, one of which included failing to pay counsel’s fees: Legal Practitioners Conduct Board v Wharff [2012] SASCFC 116.  On this subject, broadly construed, see also: Council of the Law Society of NSW v PJB [2012] NSWADT 153Council of the Law Society of NSW v ML [2012] NSWADT 146, and Council of the Law Society of NSW v HI [2012] NSWADT 203 (where the NSW solicitor was struck off).  See also Legal Services Board v G-J [2012] VSCA 68 (re the Quistclose trust which may arise when a client pays solicitors moneys for the specific purpose of paying counsel’s fees), Victoria Lawyers RPA Limited v M O Lawyers Lawyers Pty Ltd TO217 of 2002, 31 October 2001 and Law Institute of Victoria Limited v SO & GS,TO555 & TO556 of 2005 10 November 2005, and Legal Services Commissioner v JHMcC [2011] VCAT 231 noted in this post.

In Wharff,  A Full Court of the South Australian Supreme Court (Kourakis CJ, Blue and Stanley JJ) said:

‘A solicitor who engages a barrister or solicitor agent undertakes a personal liability, either in honour or in contract as the case may be, to pay the barrister’s or agent’s fees, unless otherwise agreed.[3]  Where a legal practitioner undertakes such a personal liability, it is unethical to ignore his or her obligation, and hence a wilful or persistent refusal or failure to pay fees can amount to unprofessional conduct.[4]’

[3]    Rhodes v Fielder, Jones and Harrison [1918-19] All ER 846 at 847 per Lush J (Sanke J agreeing); Re Robb (1996) 134 FLR 294 at 310 per Myles CJ, Gallop and Higgins JJ.

[4]    Rhodes v Fielder, Jones and Harrisons [1918-19] All ER 846 at 847 per Lush J (Sanke J agreeing); Law Society of New South Wales v McCarthy [2002] NSWADT 58 at [46] per Malloy, Robinson QC and Kirk; Law Society of New South Wales v Graham [2007] NSWADT 67 at [29] per Karpin ADCJ, Pheils and Fitzgerald.

Continue reading “Another solicitor struck off for not paying counsel’s fees”

Gross overcharging penalties surveyed

In Legal Profession Complaints Committee v PJO’H [2011] WASAT 95 (S), delivered on 20 February 2012 and not yet on Austlii, the Tribunal helpfully reviewed the penalties awarded in the gross overcharging cases over the years before suspending the respondent from practice for 6 months (the Committee wanted 18).  Two other things are notable about the case.  First, the Complaints Committee’s costs of the matter were $134,000 and were described as reasonable.  Second, the practitioner drafted his character witnesses’ evidence himself.  Didn’t go down well.  The decision was the work of a tribunal of three presided over by Justice Cheney.  Here’s the Tribunal’s survey:

‘In Re Veron; Ex parte Law Society (NSW) [1966] 84 WN (Pt 1) (NSW) 136, the practitioner was struck off following findings of some 65 instances of overcharging clients in respect of personal injury actions. The overcharging was found to be deliberate and there were related charges proved against the practitioner involving dishonesty or fraud in respect to the practitioner’s dealings with his clients and their money. Continue reading “Gross overcharging penalties surveyed”

The Keddies overcharging civil case no. 1

Liu v Barakat, unreported, District Court of NSW, Curtis J, 8 November 2011 is the latest in an ongoing scandal in NSW in relation to overcharging by a prominent personal injuries practice which traded as Keddies, but has subsequently been gobbled up by a publicly listed company.  Many are unhappy at the strike rate of the NSW Legal Services Commissioner in the whole affair (the sole remaining disciplinary prosecution is two and a half years old and not heading to hearing until April next year), but now the District Court has given judgment in a case finding what appears to amount to fraudulent misrepresentation in relation to the billing of about $69,000 (reduced on a ‘but say’ basis to about $64,000) in a personal injuries case where liability was admitted before Keddies got in the harness, and where the proper charge was about $21,000.  Justinian‘s Richard Ackland has the background and latest here.

The partnership apparently bungled the settlement of a taxation allowing the claim to slip through to judgment, and Judge Curtis of the NSW District Court ended up ordering Keddies to repay to the client the difference between what they charged and what they were entitled to charge.  The reasons provide food for thought for those out of time to commence taxation because the judge found that the bills had within them implied representations that the amounts billed were properly chargeable at law.  He reduced the fees chargeable by Keddies to the amount in fact properly chargeable at law, something which would ordinarily be achieved in a taxation.  Such logic might be employed in many cases in the 5 years after a bill during which the client is out of time for taxation but within the 6 year limitation period for prosecuting a misleading and deceptive conduct claim.

The case will be seized on by opponents of hourly billing, and perhaps properly so (the first 6 minutes or part thereof charged for sending a pro forma welcome letter which required only the insertion of the client’s name is an example of why minimum charges of 6 minutes are abhorrent when applied literally, for example).  But it really appears to be a case about simple dishonesty (by whom is not made clear), because in the main this was not a case where the clients were billed outrageously albeit according to the terms of a contractual agreement which bound them.  I say that because if there was any innocent explanation advanced by the Keddies partners for the conduct the most obvious explanation for which was someone’s dishonesty, it was not recorded in the judgment.  This was a case where, in the main, work was charged for which was not done (most likely as in the case of the second 6 minutes or part thereof billed for the welcome letter), or not done by a person whose contractually agreed rate warranted the charge for the time spent.  For example:

  • A secretary was impermissibly charged at partners’ rates ($460 per hour).
  • One hour’s work was charged on 4 October 2005 for drafting the costs agreement which had been signed on 30 September 2005, and an associated explanatory document at  senior litigation lawyer rates, when in fact all that was required was the insertion of the client’s name.  The Court held that the rate which would have been properly chargeable under the costs agreement had that been the appropriate method of billing was 6 minutes of a secretary’s time at secretaries’ rates. No argument appears to have been advanced that this was not work done for the client, but the lawyers’ own costs of entering into a contract to which they were a party and which they wished to propose the terms of.  There is no record of any evidence having been given that the time entry was a mistake, and it is hard to see how the recording of time beyond (at most) one block of 6 minutes or part thereof could have been anything other than outright dishonesty on at least someone’s part within Keddies, even if this activity was properly taken to be work engaged in by the solicitors on the client’s behalf.
  • A charge for two blocks of 6 minutes or part thereof was charged at the secretaries’ rate for reading a letter advising the time, date and place of a medical appointment, a further charge of two such blocks for ‘considering’ that letter, and a further charge of two such blocks for advising the plaintiff by letter of that information.  The total bill for work which it is hard to see taking 5 minutes of a secretary’s time was $108 (for which incidentally, just to keep this real, you can currently have a linguine with fresh sardines, pine nuts, currants and saffron, a gravlax, three glasses of Italian prosecco, a chocolate pudding with peanut butter ice cream and a strawberry mousse with jelly and meringues at Gill’s Diner).
  • The plaintiff was charged $184 (4 blocks of 6 minutes or part thereof at partner rates) for reading, then considering, a letter which said ‘We enclose authority for execution by your client to enable us to obtain documentation from the Department of Immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs.  Please have your client sign the authority and returned to us as soon as possible.’
  • The plaintiff was charged $131 (3 blocks of 6 minutes or part thereof at partner rates) for reading an email the non-formal parts of which read ‘Rcv’d’.  (What a freaking joke!) She was charged the same amount for reading the email to which that was a reply, the non-formal part of which read ‘I refer to our telephone call this morning.  I have been directed by Assessor J Snell, to inform CARS: 1.  The CARS hearing date on 14 September 2005 has been vacated — please cancel the interpreter arranged by CARS. The CARS hearing date has been rebooked for 17 November 2006 at 10 am — please rebook a Mandarin interpreter.’

It will be interesting to see the response of the police, the NSW Legal Services Commissioner and the Council of the NSW Law Society to the judgment, especially in light of the fact that the plaintiff’s complaint to the Commissioner was officially withdrawn, a fact which did not of course prevent the Commissioner from continuing to investigate it: s. 512 Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW).  Somewhat surprisingly, I learn from that section, that the withdrawal of the complaint also does not prevent the complainant from re-lodging it: sub-s. (5). Continue reading “The Keddies overcharging civil case no. 1”

More on the need for specific instructions before commencing proceedings on behalf of others

Update: See now Daniel Warents, ‘An Unwarranted Approach: Costs Orders Against Solicitors Acting Without Authority’, a detailed and learned review of the cases: link.

Update: See now Doulman v ACT Electronic Solutions Pty Ltd [2011] FMCA 232.  A solicitor accepted instructions from a fellow solicitor to recover fees allegedly owing by a client.  The proposed plaintiff was a company which the fellow solicitor had until shortly before the retainer been authorised to represent.  The solicitor, acting honestly, accepted these instructions from the fellow solicitor at face value: the proposed plaintiff was well known to him.  He found out only far down the track that the proposed plaintiff had been sold by the fellow solicitor before the instructions were given so that the solicitor had instituted litigation and bankrupted the defendant when he had no instructions to do so from the company.  The proceedings were a nullity.  Everything had to be unravelled.  The solicitor was ordered to pay the costs of this exercise on a party-party basis: he should have done a company search or sought written confirmation of the fellow solicitor’s authority to bind the company. There is a one-paragraph note of the case at ALJ vol 85 no 9 (September 2011) at 537.  Thanks to the Law Institute Library through the LIJ’s ‘In Reference’ page for bringing the case to my attention.

Original post: I had to look hard recently at the cases about lawyers’ obligation to have proper instructions before commencing proceedings on behalf of others. Pretty obvious really, but the grey area exists where lawyers receive instructions from agents of the client, especially where the agent is specifically authorised to retain solicitors, but not specifically authorised to commit their principal to litigation.  Victorian disciplinary tribunals have dealt with such conduct by meting out penalties ranging from a fine of $1,000 in 2011 money to recommending that the practitioner be struck off the rolls.  As this astonishing divergence of dispositions attests, everything depends on the precise facts and the motivations of the practitioners.

Further to this related post, what follows is my case notes of the three Victorian disciplinary decisions I am aware of dealing with this form of conduct warranting discipline.  Are you aware of any similar cases in Victoria or elsewhere? Continue reading “More on the need for specific instructions before commencing proceedings on behalf of others”

Should the liability for costs of a disciplinary prosecution impact on the level of punishment?

The answer is, at least in NSW — Yes. In Legal Services Commissioner v MB (No 3) [2009] NSWADT 313, a tribunal presided over by Deputy President Haylen gave the following reasons for punishing the respondent solicitor for gross-overcharging with a fine of $6,500:

‘The Tribunal accepts that the fine should be at the lower end of the range and so determines to impose a fine of $6,500. In arriving at this level of fine, the Tribunal has taken into account the large amount of costs to be met by the respondent practitioner and has formed the view that, in this case, the level of costs are a relevant consideration in assessing the overall penalty to be imposed upon the respondent. There appeared to be some debate arising from the discussion in Meakes as to the appropriateness of such an approach but in another context, the Court of Criminal Appeal has expressed the view that the level of costs is a relevant consideration in setting the level of a fine. In the Environment Protection Authority v Barnes [2006] NSWCCA 246 Kirby J, speaking for the court, rejected a submission for the appellant that the penalty imposed was a miniscule proportion of the maximum penalty applicable, stating that the individual fines which totalled $4,500 were accompanied by a costs order of approximately $16,000 and that the costs “were an important aspect of the punishment of Mr Barnes”. At para [88], his Honour stated:

Returning to the penalty imposed upon Mr Barnes. As a matter of first impression, the fines imposed appeared unduly lenient, suggesting error. However, the fines were part only of the penalty. Mr Barnes was obliged to pay substantial costs. Her Honour made it clear that, but for that fact, the fines she would have imposed would have been much higher.

Although Barnes involved the imposition of a criminal penalty, there is, in principle, no reason to depart from that approach when dealing with the very serious issue of professional misconduct and the level of fines that might be imposed on practitioners.’

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?”

WA soli disciplined for recklessly misleading Family Court

Update, 22 September 2011:  Here is the penalty decision.  The Complaints Committee argued for a report to the Supreme Court recommending striking off, but the Tribunal found that was not necessary and imposed a $20,000 on top of a costs order of about $18,000. But for the fact that the former solicitor was, at the time of the decision, a Registrar of the Family Court, the Tribunal would have considered a suspension, but as the job did not require a practising certificate, such an order would have no practical effect.

Original post: Western Australia’s State Administrative Tribunal has put out a substantial decision about misleading the court by silence: Legal Profession Complaints Committee and SMV [2011] WASAT 118.  Something tells me I won’t get around to blogging it properly any time soon, so here is the link and the Tribunal’s own summary:

‘The Legal Profession Complaints Committee made a number of allegations against a legal practitioner, Ms Sally Vanderfeen, of professional misconduct in connection with obtaining and attempting to implement consent orders in the family court for the purposes of defeating a claim to specific performance by a third party in relation to one of the properties the subject of the consent orders.

The conduct essentially concerned failure to notify the Court or the third party of the orders and of the practitioner’s client’s interest in the property pursuant to those orders. The Complaints Committee also made an allegation that the practitioner had misled the Committee in the context of the Committee’s enquires into the relevant events.

Ms Vanderfeen acknowledged that aspects of her conduct involved ‘serious errors of judgment’, but denied that her conduct was designed to defeat the third party’s claims. The Tribunal reviewed the documentary records of relevant events and concluded that they established that Ms Vanderfeen’s actions were motivated by an intention to improve the prospects that the third party would not pursue a claim for specific performance, and that the Complaints Committee’s allegations in relation to those matters were established.’

Legal Services Commissioner’s website explains difference between professional misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct

Update: So far, I have had the following responses to my musing, which seems to excite you all more than I could have imagined:

‘Thats easy, fraud is directly aimed at unlawful appropriation – dishonesty may be indirectly so.’

‘Fraud v dishonesty – my thought: does fraud require there to have been a victim, where dishonesty doesn’t?’

‘Have a look at para. 10 of Brooking’s judgment in Magistrates Court of Victoria at Heidelberg Vic Full Court 2000 Buchanan, Charles and Brooking (on perversity with the mental element and an updated ignoratia lex…….   Huge philosophical literature on all terms, and therefore the differances between them.  Thanks for your blog’ and

‘Would fraud be dishonesty employed for a financial or material gain? I think of fraud as a subset within dishonesty.’

Original post:

Who knew that sitting there on the Legal Services Commissioner’s website is an explanation of his thinking about the difference between unsatisfactory professional conduct and professional misconduct? Not me, but I quote:

‘The sort of conduct that amounts to unsatisfactory professional conduct is where the lawyer has failed to meet professional standards. Professional misconduct, on the other hand, is behaviour involving fraud, dishonesty, breach of trust or conflict of interest. The aim of an investigation is to see whether it can be proved that such conduct took place.’

Very useful to know. I am writing a paper on fraud at the moment, with the aim of covering the whole concept and all of its legal ramifications in one hour.  Being in that frame of mind prompts me to ponder what the difference is between ‘fraud’ and ‘dishonesty’.

Disciplinary prosecutors must specifically plead dishonesty

In Council of the Law Society of NSW v WDC [2011] NSWADT 83, NSW’s Bureau de Spank rejected a submission of the Law Society to the effect that it should make findings of misappropriation (a necessary element of which is dishonesty) which the Law Society said it had impliedly alleged in the charge.  ‘Nonsense!’ said the Bureau:

‘As the above outline indicates, the Grounds stated in the Application alleged misappropriation in the context of only three matters: Daude, Gibki and Laczny. But Mr Stitt argued that a claim of misappropriation was made implicitly in a number of other matters in which the Solicitor withdrew funds to which he was not entitled from a trust account: for example, Ida Potier, Davidson, Crowe, Maguda, Milkow, Obolska and Pugliese.

We agree, however, with a submission by Mr Lynch that the only matters in which we may properly make a finding of misappropriation are those in which the Law Society has alleged it. This follows, in our opinion, from the decision of the High Court in Walsh v Law Society of New South Wales (1999) 198 CLR 73: see in particular the judgment of McHugh, Kirby and Callinan JJ at 94-95.’

Jones v Dunkel inferences in disciplinary hearings

In Council of the Law Society of NSW v Clapin [2011] NSWADT 83, NSW’s Bureau de Spank rejected a submission based on Jones v Dunkel which the Law Society said should be drawn against the solicitor, who did not give evidence:

In dealing in this way with the question whether the Solicitor violated the statutory requirements with full awareness of their contents or because he was ignorant of them, we are rejecting a submission put by Mr Stitt. He argued that because the Solicitor chose not to give evidence in these proceedings we should infer that he was fully aware of the nature of these requirements. In disciplinary proceedings such as these, however, we should not make findings of seriously improper conduct against the respondent unless they are affirmatively established by cogent evidence. We decline to draw the inference urged upon us by Mr Stitt.

Dishonesty in a solicitor: does it require striking off?

Updated post, 1 July 2016: see the English High Court case Law Society of Ireland v Patrick Enright described in this case note.

Original post: In Fraser v Council of the Law Society of NSW [1992] NSWCA 72, which is part of the subject of this post, President Kirby made some comments on the relationship between the jurisdiction to strike a practitioner off the roll and a finding or admission of dishonesty, that is, fraud.  The Court of Appeal unanimously overturned the decision of a disciplinary tribunal striking off the roll a solicitor with an otherwise unblemished record  for fraudulently giving a certificate of advice to a mortgagor, then not being frank about it towards the mortgagee’s solicitor and in the disciplinary investigation, and having difficulty accepting, in the disciplinary tribunal that what he had done amounted to fraud. Kirby P said that a finding of fraud is not a prima facie indicium that a lawyer ought to be struck off; everything depends on the circumstances: Continue reading “Dishonesty in a solicitor: does it require striking off?”

Solicitor fined $3,500 for forgery

A 27 year old solicitor working in family law twice lied about the existence of a document, and then forged it.  That was just one and a bit years after a harrowing admission application in which the Board of Examiners split on whether she should be admitted, as a result of what VCAT’s Deputy President McNamara referred to as ‘allegations of plagiarism’ at the College of Law, and a want of frankness in their disclosure.  The Board had given the solicitor a stern warning at the end of the hearing.  For the forgery, the solicitor was fined $3,500 and reprimanded, the Commissioner’s submission that a year’s suspension was warranted being dismissed as ‘disproportionate’: Legal Services Commissioner v SJJ, McNamara DP, 14 April 2011.  If followed, this decision suggests once again that interference by VCAT with a practising certificate requires quite profound dishonesty.

As to the fine, it may be that $3,500 was a significant fine for this solicitor: her financial circumstances were described as ‘exiguous’, but she was employed as a solicitor by a respectable Melbourne firm at the time of the penalty hearing, looked set to remain so employed by her supportive employer, and her circumstances seem to have been principally affected by the size of her mortgage.  The general deterrence of a fine of this sum would be enhanced if its appropriateness in the context of the solicitor’s ability to pay it were explained in greater detail.  That way, solicitors weighing up the risks of forging a document against its perceived desirability (yes, that is the theory of general deterrence) would be able to remember back to the report of the case in question and think ‘Well if he was fined $5,000 and had an annual disposable income of $25,000 living in a modest home, I must be looking at a fine of something like $20,000 since my disposable income is four times his, and I live in a home twice as large as my family actually needs.’

Continue reading “Solicitor fined $3,500 for forgery”

Counsel’s discretion as to trial tactics

Joseph Vella purchased a knife and a black beanie and then turned up to his estranged wife’s door two days later in their company.  In his quiver he also sported a baseball bat.  He bashed her head in with the bat and then slit her throat with the knife.  Charged with murder, he admitted the acts, but his defence was that he had gone to the wife’s home to tell her that he would take the kids on New Year’s Eve so she could go out, but that she had provocatively told him that he would never see his kids again, whereupon — what’s a bloke to do? — he laid into her, though not with the intention of finishing her off.  He was jailed, but appealed to the Court of Appeal and then sought leave unsuccessfully to the High Court.  His appeals raised aspects of his counsel’s conduct of his defence, apparently the same ones focussed on in the disciplinary complaints referred to below against his counsel.

Appeals exhausted, Mr Vella turned his attentions to his lawyers.  He lodged a disciplinary complaint about the prosecutor.  The Western Australian disciplinary body did not lodge a prosecution as a result and Mr Vella sought a review of that decision.  He failed: Vella and Mactaggart [2011] WASAT 28.  Interestingly, the prosecutor represented himself before the disciplinary tribunal.  Mr Vella lodged a disciplinary complaint about his own counsel.  Again, the disciplinary body did not lodge a prosecution in response, and Mr Vella sought a review of that decision.  Again he failed: Vella and Bowden [2011] WASAT 56. This time, the barrister retained solicitors and counsel to represent him.  Mr Vella also lodged a complaint alleging overcharging, which gave rise to a taxation. Continue reading “Counsel’s discretion as to trial tactics”

Lawyers’ false attestation of documents and fraudulent certificates of advice

Up-updated post, 18 May 2017:  See also LSC v Huggett [2017] NSWCATOD 67, which gathers together additional authorities at [63].

Updated post, 11 March 2016: In The Law Society of New South Wales v Gathercole [2016] NSWCATOD 27, the Tribunal was asked by the applicant to order the removal of the practitioner’s name from the roll for falsely attesting a wife’s signature in her absence on a document presented to the practitioner by the fraudster husband, a bank manager.  Though the Tribunal found that the conduct amounted to ‘professional misconduct of a very high degree’, the practitioner was insightful, remorseful, and had good references.  So they gave him a $5,000 fine instead.

Original post: What’s the going rate by way of penalty for lawyers successfully prosecuted for falsely attesting the execution of documents? As usual in the law of professional discipline, the cases are all over the place — what is analysed below is a collection, not a line of, authorities — but I am unaware of any case in which a lawyer’s practising certificate has been interfered with solely for purporting to sign as witness a document they did not witness the execution of or for falsely giving a certificate that advice about the document was given.  And you would have to say that a fine of a few thousand dollars and a reprimand is the going rate. Justice Kirby, then President of the Court of Appeal, adverting to the Court’s role as fixing the standards to be observed in determinations by disciplinary tribunals, overturned a disciplinary tribunal’s decision to strike off a solicitor who gave a false certificate of advice in relation to a mortgage, exacerbated the wrongdoing by oral representations to the mortgagee’s solicitor and was not frank in the disciplinary investigations.  The Court substituted a fine and a reprimand: Fraser v Council of the Law Society of NSW [1992] NSWCA 1992.

Because of the dishonesty inherent in this species of disciplinary wrong, the cases have traditionally been clear that it amounts to professional misconduct rather than to unsatisfactory professional conduct.  But the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s decision in Xu v Council of the Law Society of NSW [2009] NSWCA 430 bucks the trend and characterised one such instance as unsatisfactory professional conduct.  All of the other cases need be re-evaluated in light of the Court of Appeal’s decision.

Below are my notes of reading the cases, for a disciplinary prosecution in which I recently acted.  I was put onto some of them by readers of this blog, for which many thanks.

Continue reading “Lawyers’ false attestation of documents and fraudulent certificates of advice”