Tribunals not bound by the laws of evidence

Update, 10 August 2017:  It once seemed to me having read Pizer’s Annotated VCAT Act (2015) at [8.60] that there was an argument to be made that the Evidence Act 2008 might have some operation to the extent that it is not over-ridden by s. 98 of the VCAT Act 1998, in that the Evidence Act 2008 empowers courts to do certain things which might not be described as part of the ‘rules of evidence’ referred to in s. 98. The Evidence Act 2008’s definition of ‘Victorian court’ (in whose proceedings the Act is said to apply) is inclusive of tribunals bound by the law of evidence, rather than excluding all tribunals which are not bound by the law of evidence, and VCAT has been regarded as a ‘court’ for various purposes. But the Court of Appeal has effectively decided (albeit without considering my thought) that the Evidence Act 2008 simply does not apply in VCAT: Karakatsanis v Racing Victoria Limited [2013] VSCA 305 at [32] – [34].

Update, 9 August 2017:  To gather the law together in one place:

(a) Pizer & Nekvapil, Pizer’s Annotated VCAT Act treats this question at [VCAT.98.160] citing Curcio v. Business Licensing Authority (2001) 18 VAR 155 at [26]; Pearce v. Button (1986) 8 FCR 408 at 422; Golem v TAC (2002) VAR 265 at [9(iv)]; Secretary to the Department of Infrastructure v Williamstown Bay and River Cruises Pty Ltd [2011] VSC 191 at [59]; and Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria v Saddik [2010] VCAT 366 at [44].

(b) A reader commended Justice Giles’s article ‘Dispensing with the Rules of Evidence’ at Vol 7 No 3 Australian Bar Review.

(c) Consider also Danne v The Coroner, [2012] VSC 454, noted here.

Original post: Here is a useful collection of interstate and federal law about what statutes are actually to be taken to mean when they say that a tribunal is not bound by the laws of evidence (like VCAT), from Justice Refshauge’s reasons in Pires v DibbsBarker Canberra Pty Limited [2014] ACTSC 283: Continue reading “Tribunals not bound by the laws of evidence”

Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it

Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] QCAT 237 is a decision of a disciplinary tribunal presided over by Justice David Thomas, President of QCAT and a Supreme Court judge. It is therefore of high persuasive value, and treats Queensland provisions which are the same as the equivalent Victorian provisions. And it provides what I suggest with respect are the correct answers to the following questions:

  • How negligent do you have to be before you can be found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct as defined in provisions which say that the concept includes ‘conduct that falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that a member of the public is entitled to expect of a reasonably competent’ lawyer holding a practising certificate? (Answer at [44] and [27]: substantial and very obvious fallings short of the standard, established by direct inferences from exact proofs.)
  • What must be pleaded specifically in a disciplinary charge? (Answer at [82] – [92]: all states of mind, not only dishonest intents, and all facts to be relied on (‘the charges to be levelled must be fully and adequately set out in the Discipline Application. As a matter of procedural fairness, the Practitioner should not be left in any doubt as to the extent of the allegations that is to be met.’)
  • To what extent is a disciplinary tribunal constrained in its decision making by the allegations specifically made in the charge? (Answer at [96] – [108]: absolutely: if no state of mind is alleged, the prosecution should not be allowed to call evidence as to state of mind; ‘it would be wrong to admit evidence the principal purpose of which is to establish conduct that lies beyond the ambit of the charge’.)
  • Does the mere fact that charges are not allowed on taxation mean that there has been overcharging such as to warrant discipline? (Answer at [76] – [77]: no)

The Tribunal dismissed charges against a solicitor who lodged a caveat pursuant to an equitable mortgage without checking that it satisfied the Statute of Frauds’ writing requirements and against a partner of her firm who took over her files when she was on holidays and billed the client for the work in attempting unsuccessfully to register the caveat.

I move from the specific facts of this QCAT case to general comment (what follows is certainly not veiled reference to the conduct of the Commissioner’s counsel in QCAT). There is a very real reason to insist on the particularization of states of mind in disciplinary tribunals, including particulars of actual and constructive knowledge. These details do not always get left out just because it is thought that disciplinary tribunals are not courts of pleading and such minutiae is not appropriate. Nor do they just get left out because they are thought to be inherent in the allegation, or because of incompetence, or mere mistake. Rather, they get left out because bureaucrats have investigated incompetently and when competent counsel come to plead disciplinary applications based on the investigation, they do not have a sufficient factual foundation to make these allegations, or perhaps are simply too timid.

But sometimes counsel with civil practices, untutored in the art of prosecutorial restraint, and safe in their private belief that the practitioner is in fact much more evil than incompetent investigation established, might fall prey to temptation. Mealy-mouthed, ambiguous allegations might be made which require the practitioner to get into the witness box. Then, all manner of unpleaded allegations as to states of mind and as to completely un-pleaded conduct, justified in relevance as tendency evidence or circumstantial evidence of the pleaded facts, might be cross-examined out of the practitioner and an unpleaded case presented to the disciplinary tribunal in closing. In a tribunal not bound by the rules of evidence, such questioning may be waved through with lip service to the proposition that objections will be dealt with by according appropriate weight to the evidence in the final analysis. Queensland leads the charge against such conduct, and I can’t help thinking it’s because Supreme Court judges seem to get involved in disciplinary decisions more often up there. All power to them. So impressed am I with this latest judgment, I have decided to go on a study tour of the Sunshine Coast in the September school holidays.

Continue reading “Yet more on the obligation on Legal Services Commissioners to plead their case properly and stick to it”

VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice

I only learnt in the last few years that Melbourne is one of the world’s great Jewish cities, with a globally significant series of communities of orthodox adherents.  One of those orthodox communities has delivered up an interesting case.  In Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v AL [2016] VCAT 439, VCAT’s Acting President recently found a well known Melbourne solicitor guilty of two counts of professional misconduct, constituted by breaches of each limb of r. 30.1.2 of the solicitors’ professional conduct rules.

The rule prohibited conduct calculated to, or likely to a material degree to be, prejudicial to the administration of justice, or to diminish public confidence in the administration of justice, or adversely to prejudice a practitioner’s ability to practise according to these rules.

The practitioner’s disciplinary offence was first to state privately to his client’s father his disappointment after an orthodox Jew sitting watching someone else’s case in court had gone out of his way from the well of the court to assist police in the middle of a bail hearing in a criminal prosecution of the practitioner’s client. His second offence was committed when the man, whom I will refer to as the complainant since he lodged the disciplinary complaint which led to the practitioner’s disciplinary prosecution, rang the practitioner and asked him about comments to similar effect which the man had heard the practitioner had made, taping the call. The practitioner expressed directly to the man similar sentiments, expressly invoking the Jewish principle of ‘mesirah’ by which Jews who cooperated with secular authorities against fellow Jews in times and places where Jews enjoyed imperfect protection were ostracized. Jewish authorities have repeatedly said that the principle has no operation in modern day Australia in relation to criminal matters.

The Age has reported, in an article prominently featuring the practitioner, that victims of Jewish abusers have been pressured not to cooperate with police. It reported the Legal Services Commissioner as saying that ‘there was a general principle that made it impermissible for a lawyer to tell a witness they could not inform police about a matter because of a religious or community rule.’ I do not mean to criticise the Commissioner in this regard, because The Age sought his comments prior to the Commissioner’s receipt of the complaint, and the Commissioner was presumably simply responding to a general question about lawyers’ obligations towards witnesses in their cases. But what VCAT’s decision demonstrates is that the practitioner’s comments occurred after the conduct in question which the practitioner believed to have involved false statements based on misinformation, and were directed to a person who was not a witness and who, as far as the practitioner was aware, was simply someone who stood up in the well of the court and interfered in his client’s case. Given that, as far as the practitioner is said to have known, the man who stood up in court had no further role to play in the case or in his client’s drama more generally, it is hard to see how the practitioner could be said to have intended to pressure the man as a victim of a Jewish abuser not to cooperate further with the police in the future in bringing the abusers to justice, as seems to have been the implication. Continue reading “VCAT finds practitioner guilty of conduct prejudicing administration of justice”

Self-represented solicitor guilty of misconduct for breaching a rule expressed to regulate conduct when acting for a client

A Western Australian disciplinary case, Legal Profession Complaints Committee v CSA [2014] WASAT 57 is interesting in a number of ways. A criminal lawyer was the manager of a strata corporation.  She owned two units and the complainant the third. The complainant affixed an airconditioner to a wall which impeded on a common area.  She sought legal advice.  Her lawyers wrote a letter of demand to the complainant and charged a few thousand dollars.  The complainant did not fix the problem within the 14 days demanded, so the lawyer sued in the Magistrates’ Court.  The case was settled on the basis that the airconditioner would be relocated and the lawyer withdrew the proceeding without seeking costs.  When the complainant sold the third unit, the lawyer demanded that the complainant pay her the few thousand dollars her lawyers had charged her for the advice and the letter of demand.  She did so by a letter of demand drafted for her by another lawyer, though the involvement of this second lawyer only emerged at the disciplinary hearing. When the complainant did not pay up, she sued for them in her personal capacity.  The suit was found to have no legal foundation, but the lawyer said that she mistakenly thought that it did have a legal foundation, and that civil proceedings were not her thing. The case says:

1.  The suit was an abuse of process because there was no legal foundation for suing for the recovery of ‘pre-litigation’ legal costs.

2.  The lawyer’s conduct in threatening to bring and then bringing a suit which was an abuse of process was common law misconduct but was also a breach of a rule which prohibited lawyers from claiming on behalf of a client costs in a letter of demand for recovery of a debt because she was acting for herself in writing the letter (even though no legal letterhead or reference to her status as a lawyer was involved).

3.  There is no defence of honest and reasonable mistake in professional discipline.

4.  It is inappropriate for a disciplinary tribunal to make what the prosecutors described as ‘an incidental finding of dishonesty’ in relation to statements made during the investigation in respect of which no charge had been laid in the disciplinary proceeding.  Any such allegation ought to be the subject of a separate process (though the Tribunal then went ahead and found that the allegation was not made out on the Briginshaw standard anyway). Continue reading “Self-represented solicitor guilty of misconduct for breaching a rule expressed to regulate conduct when acting for a client”

Suburban solicitor tenders video of himself asking employee for sex 78 times in his own sexual harrassment case

A solicitor somewhere in Melbourne’s suburbs failed in his defence of sexual harrassment claims and was ordered by VCAT’s President, Justice Garde, to pay his victim compensation of $100,000: GLS v PLP [2013] VCAT 221.  The solicitor described the complainant as a fantasist when she said that he asked her for sex in a most unwelcome manner, except to the extent that her allegations were corroborated by a video he himself had surreptitiously made during which he asked her most vulgarly for sex 78 times in about an hour and which he tendered to prove that she was coming onto him. Weird. But that was all just to grab your attention.

Now for the saucy bit: the President rehearsed the authorities on the Briginshaw application of the civil standard of proof, reproduced in this post.  But it is also interesting in that the President expressly invoked the VCAT Act power to apply rules of evidence, and did so because serious allegations were being made.  In a case about a solicitor, and for the protection of the solicitor.  I don’t think I have seen that power expressly invoked in a VCAT decision before, except occasionally to reject the tender of particularly unreliable hearsay. Here’s hoping that it might be the start of the development of VCAT’s own de facto law of evidence, because a forum without any law of evidence is a strange beast, and a forum which has an unspoken de facto evidence regime undermines equality of access to it, creating an advantage in favour of those in the know, who will tend to be experienced users and lawyers. Continue reading “Suburban solicitor tenders video of himself asking employee for sex 78 times in his own sexual harrassment case”

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”

New Zealand’s Briginshaw

Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Commission [2008] NZSC 55 is the subject of this post, as well as of this one and this one.  Set out in this post is the entirety of the three sets of reasons’ discussion of the appropriate standard of proof in disciplinary prosecutions, starting with those of the plurality (Blanchard, Tipping and McGrath JJ) reaffirming the status quo, which is expressed in Australia in the decision of Chief Justice Dixon in Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 at 361ff, followed by the concurring decision of Anderson J, and the passionate dissent of Chief Justice Elias, who considered that the criminal standard of proof should be applied.  Part only of the relevant part of the Chief Justice’s dissent — her summary — was reproduced in my earlier post. Continue reading “New Zealand’s Briginshaw”

Chief Justice Elias’s argument for criminal standard in disciplinary prosecutions

In Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Committee [2008] NZSC 55, which I wr0te about in my last post, the Chief Justice of New Zealand, Dame Sian Elias, argued in a powerful dissent that the standard of proof required in disciplinary proceedings should be the criminal standard, as it is in England.  This is her argument, as summarised by her Honour:

‘[47] … I think the time has come to say simply that the criminal standard of proof applies.  I summarise the reasons why I am of that view, which have already been foreshadowed.

[48]    First, making allowances for the dress of inherent probabilities under which guise much of the discussion has been conducted, the preponderance of authority favours the criminal standard, at least where the charges are serious or entail conduct which is criminal.  That is the effect of the decisions of the Privy Council in [Campbell v Hamlet [2005] 3 All ER 1116 (PC), Lanford v General Medical Council [1993] 1 AC 13, and McAllister v General Medical Council [1993] All ER 982 and Sadler v General Medical Council [2003] 1 WLR 2259 (PC)].  It is also consistent with the decisions in [Bhandari v Advocates Committee [1956] 1 WLR 1442 (PC)] and Re a Medical Practitioner [[1959] NZLR 784].  In both cases, the difference between the criminal standard and the standard required by the context was thought to be a difference “of little importance”.  In the present case the charges of indecent touching clearly meet the level of seriousness envisaged by cases such as McAllister and Sadler.  I would myself however draw no distinction between charges laid under s 54 of the Dental Act according to whether they are or are not in substance criminal or properly classified as “serious misconduct”, on the basis that there should be a single standard of proof under the section.  In this, I would apply the approach adopted by the Privy Council in Campbell v Hamlet and Lanford. Continue reading “Chief Justice Elias’s argument for criminal standard in disciplinary prosecutions”

Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Committee

Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Committee [2008] NZSC 55 is an important case which considers in depth just how quasi-criminal professional discipline proceedings should be.  It is a decision of New Zealand’s Supreme Court, their equivalent of our High Court, now 6 years old.  It considers the disciplinary prosecution of a dentist, acquitted of sexually assaulting sedated patients, against whom disciplinary proceedings were brought in respect of the same conduct as was the subject of the criminal charges.  That the rule against double jeopardy (i.e. the doctrine of autrefois acquit) had no operation was accepted by the dentist.  But he argued that the disciplinary proceedings were an abuse of process.  Four of the five judges agreed with him in relation to one only of the particulars of professional misconduct, while one judge said even that should be allowed to go ahead.  One of the four judges, Chief Justice Elias, held that all of the particulars of misconduct were an abuse of process.  The second issue was what standard of proof these disciplinary charges had to be established to.  All but the Chief Justice held that the appropriate standard was the civil standard informed by what we would call the Briginshaw principles.  The Chief Justice, however, argued persuasively in favour of the imposition of the criminal standard in serious professional disciplinary proceedings. Continue reading “Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Committee”

More on Briginshaw

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes has a useful post today about two matters of interest to this blog: how the rules of evidence apply in tribunals which are not bound by them, and the reminder in Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 that the more serious the allegations, the more positively persuaded of them a decision maker should be before finding them made out. (You will note I did not refer to the ‘Briginshaw standard of proof; Justice Dixon’s whole point is that there is no Briginshaw standard of proof.) Too much ink has been split interpreting Briginshaw given how clearly Justice Dixon expressed himself, but it is always useful to have fresh perspectives.  The authors consider the issues in the context of intervention order applications, a civil phenomenon in which the criminal law is mixed up by virtue of the police’s penchant for alleging the commission of crimes as grounds for obtaining an intervention order.