NSW solicitor who didn’t pay counsel’s fees struck back on

Salvatore Russo, a solicitor of 29 years’ standing, was struck off NSW’s roll of solicitors on 16 April 2016 by NCAT.  He had received payment from his client for counsel’s fees but not paid counsel for years. Then he was high-handed in response to the client’s entreaties when counsel sued the client directly.  The Court of Appeal found a denial of procedural fairness by NCAT.  The Tribunal had telescoped the questions of liability and penalty into one hearing.  It had failed to give Mr Russo sufficient notice of the fact it was considering striking him off despite the fact by the end of the trial, the Commissioner was not seeking such an outcome any more. Now he’s been struck back on by the NSW Court of Appeal, a fine of $20,000 substituted for his misconduct: Russo v Legal Services Commissioner [2016] NSWCA 306.  (In fact, the striking off never came into operation, because he got a stay along the way.) Continue reading “NSW solicitor who didn’t pay counsel’s fees struck back on”

New South Wales Law Society misconceivedly suspends sole practitioner’s PC peremptorily

In Dennis v Council of the Law Society of New South Wales [2014] NSWSC 1487, the Law Society suspended a sole practitioner’s practising certificate with immediate effect and appointed a manager to his practice.  He had not responded to commands by a trust investigator to produce documents and answer questions in relation to a disciplinary complaint.  The Society said that he had failed to do so wilfully and without reasonable excuse, and this, it said, made it necessary to abolish the man’s livelihood.

Hoeben CJ at CL found that the commands were invalid in law, and there had been no failure at all to comply with them.  But even if the Society’s interpretation of the provisions of the Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW) in question had been correct so that there had been a failure to comply with them, his Honour said, this would still not have been an appropriate occasion on which to exercise the ’emergency powers’ which the Law Society exercised.  It simply was not ‘necessary’ for the protection of the public to shut down a sole practice like that.  Especially since, prima facie, the appropriate place for the complainant to raise the practitioner’s conduct was in the proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria which were the backdrop to the conduct complained of and which were pending at the time of the complaint.  And more especially still where the practitioner had cited the commercial sensitivity to that litigation of confidential information sought by the Law Society and had suggested that the investigation be paused pending the imminent completion of those proceedings.

Given that the complaint in which the practitioner was said wilfully to have failed to obey the stipes’ commands was the complaint of a non-client, I will be interested to learn what it is about NSW law which means that the solicitor could be obliged to deliver up privileged information even if the commander had the power to issue the commands.  The Victorian Bureau de Spank has no such powers: B v Auckland District Law Society [2003] UKPC 38, a decision of the Privy Council and Legal Services Commissioner v Shulsinger [2010] VCAT 965. Continue reading “New South Wales Law Society misconceivedly suspends sole practitioner’s PC peremptorily”

Commissioner’s obligation to charge dishonesty if he intends to allege it

Relatively recently, I posted on the question of whether a Bureau de Spank desiring to rely on a practitioner’s dishonesty or other form of conscious wrongdoing must expressly allege it in the charge, and discussed Walter v Council of Queensland Law Society Incorporated (1988) 77 ALR 228 at 234; [1988] HCA 8.  Now, in Legal Services Commissioner v Madden (No 2) [2008] QCA 301 the Queensland Court of Appeal has had a go, and reversed a decision of the Court’s Chief Justice sitting on the Legal Practice Tribunal.  The solicitor had previously been disciplined in relation to his trust account.  He was charged with gross delay in litigation which resulted in applications by the other side to compel the achievement of various interlocutory steps.  He dealt with those applications without advising his client, agreed on his client’s behalf to pay costs, withdrew money to pay those costs from monies held in trust on account of fees and disbursements, and then charged the client fees for his work in fixing up his own mistake.  He also acted for both husband and wife in the preparation of a pre-nup, apparently stuffing it up, and then later acted in a matrimonial dispute for the husband alone, described as a particularly obvious conflict of duties.

The Chief Justice made findings of dishonesty in the absence of any allegation of dishonesty in the charge.  One might say, in fact, that he went out of his way to do so.  First he sought comment in relation to whether on the agreed facts, the Tribunal was free to draw inferences that dishonesty actuated the solicitor’s conduct, and invited the Commissioner to amend the charge so as to allow exploration of that issue.  His Honour adjourned the hearing to give the Commissioner time to think about that. On the return of the hearing, the Commissioner declined the invitation to amend.  So the Tribunal put out a document specifying, as a matter of procedural fairness, the inferences it was considering drawing, and invited argument.  The solicitor swore an affidavit responding to the Tribunal’s document.  The Commissioner’s counsel cross-examined the solicitor, but did not put it to him that he had acted dishonestly. The Tribunal then concluded that the solicitor had acted dishonestly, and decided to strike him off rather than go with the fine and reprimand recommended by the Commissioner.  Ooffa!

‘Wrong way. Go back!’ said the Court of Appeal.  It started with a general proposition:

’54 It is … a well recognised rule of practice in civil proceedings that, although the word “dishonesty” is not necessarily required, any charge of dishonesty must be made in clear terms.  In a well known passage in Belmont Finance Corporation Ltd v Williams Furniture Ltd & Ors [1979] Ch 250 at 268  Buckley LJ said: Continue reading “Commissioner’s obligation to charge dishonesty if he intends to allege it”

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”

Commissioner’s unexplained delay reduces penalty for serious misconduct

Speaking of the need for speed as Justice Heydon and I were on this blog yesterday, there are two other instances worthy of reporting.

First, the High Court has recently considered the need for speed in criminal proceedings, and were not nearly as excited about it as in commercial litigation. This time, they rolled the court below for saying that enough delay was enough and staying a criminal prosecution that had hung around for too long, resulting in the loss of exculpatory evidence.  The decision in R v Edwards [2009] HCA 20 might have application by analogy in disciplinary cases. It is blogged about at Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes, and there is a short note in the latest Law Institute Journal.

Secondly, delay by the Legal Services Commissioner has had a consequence in a serious disciplinary prosecution.  Parliament requires the Bureau de Spank to conduct their investigations ‘as expeditiously as possible’, and to give the complainant progress reports at least 6 monthly: s. 4.4.12, Legal Profession Act, 2004.  If the Commissioner complies with these injunctions, the degree of expedition which is possible is not always great.  In fact, sometimes the rate at which investigations progress is astonishing.  So glacial can progress be that the possibility that climate change sceptics might actually have some kernel of truth buried away beneath all of their hot air (-not) begins to nag at you.  There is a letter in the latest Law Institute Journal complaining about the Commissioner’s April 2009 response to a solicitor’s September 2008 letter (August 2009, p. 10).

An unexplained period of apparent inactivity of 18 months was taken into account in favour of the lawyer prosecuted for misconduct in Legal Services Commissioner v ER [2009] VCAT 1445.  This is a factor which might be brought to bear in many a plea in a disciplinary prosecution.  What Judge Ross’s tribunal said on this issue is: Continue reading “Commissioner’s unexplained delay reduces penalty for serious misconduct”

Beak bribe boast bars barro

Legal Services Commissioner v JDG [2008] LPT 17 is a shocking case in which a Queensland barrister was struck off after he lied when confronted by investigators with the true proposition that he had offered to pay a $50,000 bribe to a Magistrate or Crown prosecutor on behalf of a client.  He also took $59,000 in cash from the direct access client and popped it into his safe.  He used some of it to feed his gambling.  He should, of course, have chucked it into a special account.  He told his client that: Continue reading “Beak bribe boast bars barro”

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’”

Law Institute seeks 50 year ban for 62 year old solicitor

In Law Institute of Victoria v DSS [2008] VCAT 1179, the Institute sought in a misconduct prosecution an order that the solicitor not be allowed to handle trust monies for 50 years. Vice President Judge Ross described the submission as ‘somewhat excessive’.

The solicitor had stolen $75,000 from his clients and out of his trust account, lied to a trust account inspector, removed evidence so as to hinder his investigation, and involved a client in misleading the inspector by dictating a letter full of lies and having her sign it and send it to the inspector with a view to perverting the course of justice. These were ‘manifestly serious’ instances of misconduct. In a criminal prosecution, Justice Lasry had sentenced the solicitor to 18 months’ imprisonment, wholly suspended. The solicitor was suffering from a mental illness at the time when he committed the offences. A family law client had been murdered by her husband at the County Court more or less in the solicitor’s presence and he had not coped well. There was a psychiatrist’s report. The solicitor was remorseful and his remediation was well advanced. He had paid back all the stolen monies. He was working in a business which provided services to body corporates, and his employer was supportive. On his return to practice, he intended to confine himself to body corporate law.

In these circumstances, the Institute contended that an appropriate disposition for the disciplinary charges arising out of the same facts as the criminal charges was: Continue reading “Law Institute seeks 50 year ban for 62 year old solicitor”

Kylie’s one-time lawyer before VCAT’s Legal Practice List

Update, 18 July 2008: Make that a $200,000, not $20,000, loan from rock impressario Michael Gudinski. I like the way he gave evidence to VCAT’s Legal Practice List by mobile phone from a US Billy Joel concert. Leonie Wood’s report for The Age is here.

Update, 15 July 2008: Apparently the Law Institute’s trust account inspector Ron Hall thumped the table while under cross-examination by the lawyer’s counsel. What drama! The Age‘s report is here. Mr Hall’s evidence provides a fascinating insight into the way trust account inspectors employed by the Law Institute think. Mr Hall said at one stage, he thought ‘right, I have enough here to put a practitioner up for alleged misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct’. Inspectors hold statutory office as individuals, and their job is to investigate compliance with the trust account regime, and to report their results to the Legal Services Board. The Legal Services Commissioner is charged with bringing prosecutions for misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct. Many trust account inspectors are employees of the Law Institute, and the Board delegates its functions in relation to trust accounts to the Institute. The Commissioner outsources the investigation of allegations of unsatisfactory conduct and misconduct to the Institute too. This is under the new simpler, more transparent, new and improved no-self-regulation-here! regime set up at such expense of paper and ink by the Legal Profession Act, 2004. According to The Age:

‘Mr Hall was asked if, during his investigation, he acted “at the express behest of the Australian Crime Commission”. He first said “yes”, adding he had been subpoenaed by the ACC. Asked again by VCAT deputy president Mark Dwyer, Mr Hall said the LIV investigation was his own work. But then he revealed that ACC officers gave him one of their documents.’

Update, 12 July 2008: The lawyer failed in his bid to have the Supreme Court prevent the Legal Profession Tribunal continuing to hear the disciplinary charges against him. And The Age reports on one of the transactions under scrutiny, a loan by Michael Gudinski to his then lawyer, of $20,000, said by the Legal Services Commissioner to be inadequately documented, and a breach of professional standards.Original post: The lawyer towards the centre of the regulators’ tax probe Project Wickenby, once Kylie Minogue’s and other celebrities’ lawyer, is again in the news as his VCAT Legal Practice List prosecution continues in his absence overseas. He has appealed Deputy President Dwyer’s refusal to adjourn the disciplinary hearing on the basis it would prejudice the hearing of what the solicitor claims are imminent criminal charges and the appeal will be heard in the Supreme Court on Friday morning. His barrister says he has no instructions in relation to the disciplinary matters. The Commissioner alleges the solicitor provided no cooperation with the investigation. I am not aware of Deputy President Dwyer sitting in the Legal Practice List before. He was the head of Freehills’s Environment and Planning Group and was appointed DP on 1 April 2007.

As far as I can see from Austlii, all of his decisions written reasons for which have been published on Austlii have involved local councils and I infer that they have all been planning matters. There is one exception: a real property list matter. A web profile of Mr Dwyer before his appointment says: Continue reading “Kylie’s one-time lawyer before VCAT’s Legal Practice List”

Megafirm partner who stole to make budget gets his ticket back after long holiday

The latest application for review of a decision of the Legal Services Board decision not to grant a practising certificate was in the matter of DAP v Law Institute of Victoria [2008] VCAT 688. The 57 year old solicitor and former Melbourne Cricket Club Committee member was a property lawyer at one of Melbourne’s megafirms for about 27 years, many of them as a partner. Over the last nine of those years, he committed various acts of professional misconduct associated with the firm’s trust account. Of course the megafirm was not always a megafirm. The solicitor was for most of his career in one of the firms swallowed up into the megafirm. Justice Betty King, in the solicitor’s criminal prosecution said:

‘6. The [offences] are at the lowest end of the scale of offences of this nature. The total involved was just over $9,000 and it was not money that at any stage was ever to be for your own spending. The money was directed into meeting the targets set by your firm for your department. All firms have become hard-headed businesses, with targets and budgets and six minute units which, I add, is, in my view, driving young lawyers out of the profession at a very rapid rate. You, unfortunately, had commenced practice when it was a profession and unlike its current incarnation. It would, of course, have been preferable to have approached your other partners and indicated that it was not possible to meet the budget that had been set for you and suffered the consequences of not meeting that budget. Instead, you chose this course of conduct, the one of stealing money from those accounts. That has resulted in far worse consequences for you, your wife, your children and the community that you had previously served so well. Continue reading “Megafirm partner who stole to make budget gets his ticket back after long holiday”

The barrister and the trust monies saga ends in 6 month holiday

Update: 14 October 2007  The Court of Appeal refused leave to appeal, and the High Court refused special leave to appeal too, on 5 October 2007.

In Victorian Bar Inc v DAP, [2006] VCAT 2293 Judge Bowman, Tony Southall QC and T Harper suspended the barrister’s practising certificate for 6 months and ordered him to pay costs. He had been found guilty of misconduct constituted by breach of a prohibition in the Legal Practice Act, 1996 on barristers receiving trust monies (otherwise than through their clerks) (s. 178). Breach of the provision was also amenable of being prosecuted as a crime, punishable by up to 2 years’ imprisonment. That that was so was considered to be a measure of the seriousness with which Parliament viewed the offence. Continue reading “The barrister and the trust monies saga ends in 6 month holiday”

Another unrepresented lawyer bites the dust in WA

The lessons against self-representation in discipline cases are coming almost too thick and fast for me to digest them. Here is The West Australian‘s short article on the striking off recently of Vijitha De Alwis, a solicitor who played a part in a legal saga involving an attempt to deport a non-citizen Briton convicted of crimes, Mr Taylor. The Full Bench of the Supreme Court of Western Australia struck De Alwis off the roll of practitioners on 29 September 2006 in Legal Practitioners Complaints Committee v De Alwis [2006] WASCA 198 following a report by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. It is a case about receiving trust monies without holding a trust account, like the Victorian case in this post, but it is as much a case about a self-represented person shooting himself in the foot by:

  • serial non-compliance with rules and orders;
  • repeated bias applications (he said the Legal Practitioners Discipline Tribunal “descended to the dust of the Arena and blinded itself”); and
  • repeated ill-got-up adjournment applications on health grounds (one was based on a medical certificate in the following terms: “This gentleman suffers from numerous medical problems and is currently unfit to stand trial or an inquiry”; on another occasion “He said that he had medical advice to the effect that, if he continued to handle his case he ‘might end up having a severe Heart Attack or a massive Stroke that will be fatal’).

One of his problems was that there was ample evidence of him appearing in courts as advocate (or attempting to) at around the same times as he said he was unable to face trial in the proceedings against him. Another was that his written submissions as to why he was too ill to make written submissions disproved what they sought to argue (see [100]). The Full Court said:

“111 … the practitioner’s unfitness for practice is amply demonstrated, in addition, by the manner in which he has conducted himself in these proceedings. His affidavits have been replete with argumentative material, often including allegations of gross misconduct against judicial officers, practitioners and court staff, none of which appear to have any foundation. Moreover, as will be apparent, he has repeatedly failed to comply with time limits and directions imposed by the Court.” Continue reading “Another unrepresented lawyer bites the dust in WA”

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”

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”

Colourful barrister runs rings around the Bar’s prosecutor, for a while anyway

Update, August 2006: the end of the saga is to reported at this post. 

Original post: In Victorian Bar v DAP (Nos. 1 to 4) (Bowman, Southall QC, Harper) [2006] VCAT 294, the Bar got itself into a tangle in the prosecution of a barrister for what sounds like the relatively minor offence of taking monies on account of fees in advance without holding a trust account. The complainant refused to give evidence and VCAT refused to arrest him. But it is not only an entertaining series of decisions: Judge Bowman took a firm line in relation to prosecutorial fairness.

Continue reading “Colourful barrister runs rings around the Bar’s prosecutor, for a while anyway”