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When Joanne Murdock deliberately remained uncontactable to her solicitors for an extended period of time, she received a bill from them for all the work they had done for her.
The bill set out the charges item by item, particularising the date, the time spent and the person who performed the work, but for most items only provided very concise descriptions of the work performed. Examples later complained of included “attendance with you”, and “telephone attendance with you”.
Nearly a month later, Joanne Murdock saw another firm named Whitehead Crowther Lawyers for advice on the bill. They wrote to her former solicitors requesting “a bill in itemised format prepared in accordance with the law society rules (sic)”. Because of Joanne Murdock’s failure to make any part payment, secure the costs of her former solicitors or even accept instructions for service, her former solicitors commenced proceedings in the Magistrates Court of Queensland for recovery of their fees and disbursements.
A few months later, her former solicitors obtained summary judgment at a hearing before Magistrate Noel Nunan, who also refused to order a costs assessment.
Joanne Murdock then appealed this decision, appointing Rose Litigation Lawyers to do so. Rose Litigation Lawyers filed a Notice of Appeal, in summary contending that Magistrate Nunan had erred in finding the bill was an itemised bill and for refusing to order a costs assessment.
Section 300 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld) defines the following terms:
“itemised bill” means a bill stating, in detail, how the legal costs are made up in a way that would allow the legal costs to be assessed under division 7.
“lump sum bill” means a bill that describes the legal services to which it relates and specifies the total amount of the legal costs.
Section 332 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld) relevantly provides that:
332 Request for itemised bill
(1) If a bill is given by a law practice in the form of a lump sum bill, any person who is entitled to apply for an assessment of the legal costs to which the bill relates may request the law practice to give the person an itemised bill.
A bill in the form of a lump sum bill includes a bill other than an itemised bill.
(2) The law practice must comply with the request within 28 days after the date on which the request is made.
(5) If the person makes a request for an itemised bill within 30 days after receiving the lump sum bill, the law practice must not commence proceedings to recover the legal costs from the person until 30 days after complying with the request.
The Legal Profession Act 2007 (and the many statutes before it) provides for a process where an independent person known as a costs assessor goes through a lawyer’s bill and decides which charges on a bill are fair and reasonable, and should be allowed. This process is known as a costs assessment, and is primarily intended to protect clients of solicitors. Section 335 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld) relevantly provides that:
335 Application by clients or third party payers for costs assessment
(1) A client may apply for an assessment of the whole or any part of legal costs.
(10) Subject to this section, a costs application under subsection (1) or (2) must be made in the way provided under the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules.
Rule 740 of the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 1999 relevantly provides that:
(1) After a certificate of assessment is filed, the registrar of the court must make the appropriate order having regard to the certificate.
(2) The order takes effect as a judgment of the court.
Rule 743A of the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 1999 relevantly provides that:
743A Application for costs assessment
(1) A person applying for a costs assessment must apply to the relevant court.
(2) The application must—
(a) be in the approved form; and
(b) state the names of any persons to whom notice must be given under the Legal Profession Act 2007, section 339 (1); and
(c) if practicable—
(i) nominate a particular costs assessor for the assessment; and
(ii) state the applicable hourly rate of the nominated costs assessor; and
(d) be accompanied by the following—
(i) an affidavit;
(ii) if applicable, the nominated costs assessor’s consent to appointment to carry out the costs assessment and confirmation that, if appointed, there would be no conflict of interest;
(iii) the prescribed fee.
(3) If the applicant has an itemised bill for all of the costs to be assessed under the application, a copy of the itemised bill must be an exhibit to the affidavit.
(4) If the applicant does not have an itemised bill for all of the costs to be assessed under the application, the best information the applicant has as to the costs to be assessed must be included in the affidavit.
(5) The affidavit must also—
(a) state whether the applicant disputes or requires assessment of all or what part of the costs; and
(b) if the applicant disputes all or part of the costs, state the grounds on which the applicant disputes the amount of the costs or liability to pay them.
In Keene v Ward  EngR 1210, The Queen’s Bench held that a solicitor’s bill must contain sufficient information for him to obtain advice about taxation, but that an exactness of form was not required.
In Cook v Gillard  EngR 942, the House of Lords held that a solicitor’s bill which failed to specify in which Court the business was done was still valid, as such information would presumably already be within the knowledge of the client.
In Haigh v Ousey (1857) 7 El. & Bl. 578 119EngRep, it was held that the question of whether a bill was sufficient for a client to be advised about whether to seek taxation of the solicitor’s costs depended on what further information the client was able to tell their advisors about the charges.
In Clayton Utz Lawyers v P & W Enterprises Pty Ltd  QDC 5, Judge Reid of the District Court of Queensland held that the generalised and incomplete descriptions of the work in the bills provided by the law firm were not itemised bills within the meaning of the Legal Profession Act 2007 as they provided “a wholly inadequate explanation of the work actually performed”. Consequently, the law firm was ordered to deliver itemised bills.
On the other hand, in Pott v Clayton Utz  QSC 167 it was held by the Supreme Court of Queensland that the client has an onus to show what further information they require to get advice about applying for a cost assessment, otherwise the solicitor’s bills would be presumed to be itemised bills, and that merely swearing to a generalised concern of overcharging is insufficient to discharge this onus.
At the hearing, Judge Porter QC immediately identified that the central issue of the appeal was whether the bill provided was an itemised bill within the meaning of the Legal Profession Act 2007, as all of the grounds of appeal depended on the bill being found to not be an itemised bill. His Honour also correctly noted that the central problem for Joanne Murdock was that she had not sworn any affidavit in the Magistrates Court proceedings concerning the extent of her knowledge of the charges contained in the bill. An adjournment application to adduce fresh evidence at the hearing was dismissed ex tempore.
Whilst Judge Porter QC held that a proper request for an itemised bill had been made within 30 days as required to enliven the prohibition on suing in section 332(5) of the Legal Profession Act, he also held that the bill was an itemised bill, and therefore there was no prohibition on the law practice commencing recovery proceedings when it did. The reasons why the bill was an itemised bill were because it specifically identified all the work performed and the names of other persons involved, most of the unparticularised attendances involved relatively short periods of time, and that Joanne Murdock would be expected to know much about the work performed for her. In any event, the absence of evidence by Joanne Murdock as to the extent of her knowledge meant that she had failed to discharge the onus of showing she did not have sufficient information to obtain advice about the bill.
Judge Porter QC rejected other arguments in support of the appeal, including that Magistrate Nunan should have ordered a costs assessment, that the terms of the mandatory costs disclosure provided to Joanne Murdock formed a part of the contract between herself and the firm, and that the Defence filed for Joanne Murdock constituted evidence of the truth of its contents because it was exhibited to an affidavit filed by the firm.
Because there was no error on the part of Magistrate Nunan, the appeal was dismissed with costs.
This case is the latest in a long case history of clients being sued for outstanding fees complaining about the sufficiency of the contents of the bill in order to avoid judgment being entered or standing against them. Applying the established principles derived from the case law, the District Court held that the client had failed to discharge her onus to show that the bill was not an itemised bill, because she had not provided any evidence of the extent of her knowledge of the work done for her. As a result, the appeal had to be dismissed.
This case again shows how whether a bill is sufficient will vary from case to case, depending on the client’s own knowledge or presumed knowledge. The (common) view that it is only the information that is contained on the face of the bill itself that matters is erroneous, because the test is whether another solicitor can provide advice based on the contents of bill supplemented by the client’s own knowledge of the matter. It is only when the sum of these two factors still means that the client cannot make an informed decision of whether to seek a costs assessment that the bill can be deemed inadequate and (upon a proper request) the prohibition on the law firm suing provided in section 332(5) of the Legal Profession Act applies.
William ‘Uncle Bill’ Randall has been struck off as a lawyer following his convictions for numerous child sex offences.
William John Randall was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland on 9 June 1981. He never practised as a solicitor, and never held a practising certificate. He was however appointed a Magistrate in 1985 and served for a long time in the small claims tribunal until his retirement in 2016.
On 21 November 2017 he was convicted by a jury of a range of serious sexual offences committed against a child. The child was just five when the abuse started in 1990 at Randall’s home at Wynnum, on Brisbane’s bayside. It continued for almost 12 years, and the victim was 30 before he finally gathered the courage to tell police. Randall was initially sentenced to 9 years imprisonment but on appeal this was increased to 11 years imprisonment. He continued to deny his offending throughout and never showed any remorse.
Section 419 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld) states as follows:
(1) Professional misconduct includes –
(a) unsatisfactory professional conduct of an Australian legal practitioner, if the conduct involves a substantial or consistent failure to reach or keep a reasonable standard of competence and diligence; and
(b) conduct of an Australian legal practitioner, whether happening in connection with the practice of law or happening otherwise than in connection with the practice of law that would, if established, justify a finding that the practitioner if not a fit and proper person to engage in legal practices.
Section 452 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 states as follows:
Starting proceeding before a disciplinary body
(1) The commissioner may apply—
(a) to the tribunal for an order against an Australian legal practitioner in relation to a complaint against the legal practitioner or an investigation matter.
Section 453 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 states as follows:
The disciplinary body must hear and decide each allegation stated in the discipline application.
Section 456 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 relevantly provides as follows:
“456 Decisions of tribunal about an Australian legal practitioner
(1) If, after the tribunal has completed a hearing of a discipline application in relation to a complaint or an investigation matter against an Australian legal practitioner, the tribunal is satisfied that the practitioner has engaged in unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct, the tribunal may make any order as it thinks fit, including any 1 or more of the orders stated in this section.
(2) The tribunal may, under this subsection, make 1 or more of the following in a way it considers appropriate—
(a) an order recommending that the name of the Australian legal practitioner be removed from the local roll;
(b) an order that the practitioner’s local practising certificate be suspended for a stated period or cancelled;
(c) an order that a local practising certificate not be granted to the practitioner before the end of a stated period.”
In Legal Services Commissioner v Quinn  QLPT 19, the solicitor had pleaded guilty to and been convicted of one count of importing child pornography, one count of possessing child abuse computer games, and one count possessing child abuse photographs. The offending was detected after Quinn attempted to re-enter Australia while carrying Category 1 magazines and compact discs he purchased in Japan. At the hearing of the discipline application, Fryberg J found him guilty of professional misconduct and recommended that his name be removed from the local roll without giving any reasons.
In considering whether Randall should be removed from the roll of legal practitioners in Queensland, the Tribunal held that:
“Whilst this offending did not occur in connection with the practice of law, regard must be had to s 419(1)(b) and s 419(2) of the LPA. By s 9(1)(d) of the LPA, “suitability matter” relevantly includes whether a person has been convicted of an offence, and if so the nature of the offence, how long ago the offence was committed, and the person’s age when the offence was committed.
“The conduct for which the respondent was convicted was heinous and repugnant to the moral sensibilities of all right-thinking members of the community. It was conduct which, of itself, amply supports a finding that the respondent is not a fit and proper person to engage in legal practice.
“There will accordingly be a finding that the respondent engaged in professional misconduct.
“The nature, and extent, of the conduct is also such as to inform the order which ought be made as a consequence of that finding. It was conduct which is incompatible with the personal qualities essential for practice as a legal practitioner. By engaging in this conduct, the respondent effectively forfeited the privilege of ongoing membership of an honourable profession.
“Noting again that this course of action is consented to by the respondent, the Tribunal considers it appropriate in the present case to recommend that the respondent’s name be removed from the roll of practitioners.”
The result was that Randall was struck off.
The case of William John Randall concerns a spectacular fall from grace as a result of his sinister double life that finally caught up with him. He went from a Magistrate who stood in judgment of others to someone who found himself in the dock, followed by prison.
This case also is also an application of the long-established principle that a lawyer can get struck off for conduct unrelated to legal practice, particularly if the conduct is of a serious criminal nature.
Randall’s convictions made it unnecessary to prove the conduct the subject of his crimes, as proof of his convictions was sufficient to prove the criminal conduct. The serious nature of his crimes, the fact they occurred over a long period of time, the breach of trust they involved and his lack of remorse necessitated a conclusion that he should be struck off.
Why do you need a lawyer? On some level this is a basic and obvious question, but there is a lot more to the answer than first meets the eye. Although it seems like a pretty obvious question, there are in fact a number of advantages of having a lawyer.
1. Lawyers have knowledge and experience
A lawyer usually has special knowledge and experience acquired from their qualifications and their years of legal practice. A lawyer knows the law, should know the procedures, and will be able to prepare documents and handle your case in the most effective way. By engaging a lawyer, you are taking advantage of the knowledge and skills that he or she possesses, which should benefit your case enormously.
Lawyers know what points and arguments are most relevant and effective, and which ones are less so. Experienced lawyers know of the temperament and expectations of particular judges, and are able to tailor their approach accordingly. Lawyers can effectively advise you of the advantages and disadvantages of a proposed course of action.
In contrast, relying on the advices of people who are not legally qualified is a very dangerous thing to do, even if such people mean well. There are a lot of myths in the community about the legal system and how it works. By speaking with a lawyer, you can find out whether what you have heard is in fact true, and if not your understanding of your matter will become more accurate and realistic.
2. Lawyers can help prevent disputes
One of the popular and enduring myths about lawyers is that they create and promote conflict. In reality, lawyers issue try to prevent conflict and attempt to resolve conflict without the need for final judicial determination. Disputes can and often are resolved through the sending of constructive correspondence, negotiation and participation in alternative dispute resolution.
By protecting your rights and interests, getting the agreement into writing and ensuring that everything is legally sound, a lawyer can significantly reduce the likelihood of having a costly dispute arise in the first place. And even if a dispute does eventuate, the number of uncertainties and the risks of a seriously bad outcome are substantially less the earlier a lawyer is retained.
3. The other party will take you more seriously
Because lay people representing themselves are at such a disadvantage, the lawyers for the other party(ies) might be less likely to put forward decent offers to settle the case, which can result in you settling for less than you otherwise would. Without the benefit of legal advice, you are unlikely to know whether an offer you receive is reasonable, or whether you are likely to get a better outcome by rejecting it.
Even if you know the offers the other side have been prepared to put forward are inadequate, you may be less likely to settle your case because the other side know that you will struggle to prove your case as a self-represented litigant, which means more time, stress and risk.
4. Lawyers take the stress out the situation
Having someone on your side who is handling the situation for you can be rather reassuring, and reduces the stress you are feeling about your case. It saves you from having to read every piece of correspondence that comes in about your matter, feeling like you are in it alone or having to think about it constantly.
5. Lawyers save you time
For most people, time is valuable. By doing most of the work for you, the lawyer allows you to have the time to live your life. As a result, that you can spend time with your family and friends, and not have to take substantial time off work.
6. Lawyers are not emotionally involved
Because your lawyers are not you, there is a benefit of detachment that exists that allows your lawyer to view your case objectively and provide you with sound advice and recommendations. There’s an old legal truism that “he who acts for himself has a fool for a client”. This applies even to lawyers who represent themselves, because a self-represented litigant is usually too emotionally involved to see things objectively and make rational judgments. This is particularly the case in family law, where emotions are heightened.
7. If you win, you can get your costs
In civil litigation, the general rule is that the loser usually pays the winner’s costs. So if you win, you get (partly) compensated for the legal bills you have paid with a costs order in your favour. In contrast, if you are self-represented you are only entitled to claim for disbursements such as filing fees, and therefore cannot be compensated for your time and effort.
8. Lawyers have insurance
In Australia, all lawyers are required to have professional indemnity insurance. If your lawyer makes a critical error which costs you a lot of money, you can sue your lawyer for this. In contrast, if you mess up your own case you only have yourself to blame and therefore are not entitled to any compensation.
Of course, all this is not to say that you need a lawyer in every legal dispute you ever have. If for instance you have a dispute over a small sum in a tribunal where costs cannot be awarded, you would probably best be served by representing yourself. But in most other cases, the benefits of having a lawyer in a legal dispute far outweigh the costs.
Nicola Gobbo, the barrister at the centre of the scandal that sparked the Victorian Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants has been publicly identified, after orders made to conceal her identity were lifted today.
Ms Gobbo’s history:
“A former legal counsel to some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, Ms Gobbo is understood to have helped Victoria Police in at least 386 cases involving Melbourne’s underworld during her time acting as a paid police informant, following her initial recruitment in 1995.
The information she provided helped lead to the arrest and conviction of many, including some of her clients such as gangland boss Tony Mokbel, who in 2012 was sentenced to 30 years’ for his head role in the infamous multimillion-dollar drug syndicate known as ‘The Company’.
Following the December announcement that there would be a Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, largely centred around a female barrister who the public now knows to be Ms Gobbo, Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Kerri Judd QC, wrote to 20 criminals — including Mokbel — to tell them their convictions may have been affected as a result of Ms Gobbo’s role in acting as a police informant.
“EF [the barrister’s pseudonym], while purporting to act as counsel for the convicted persons, provided information to Victoria Police that had the potential to undermine the convicted persons’ defences to criminal charges of which they were later convicted”, the December High Court judgment noted.
“EF’s actions in purporting to act as counsel for the Convicted Persons while covertly informing against them were fundamental and appalling breaches of EF’s obligations as counsel to her clients and of EF’s duties to the court.
“Likewise, Victoria Police were guilty of reprehensible conduct in knowingly encouraging EF to do as she did and were involved in sanctioning atrocious breaches of the sworn duty of every police officer to discharge all duties imposed on them faithfully and according to law without favour or affection, malice or ill-will.
“As a result, the prosecution of each convicted person was corrupted in a manner which debased fundamental premises of the criminal justice system.”
In first announcing the royal commission, the Andrews government issued a statement, saying that the integrity of the criminal justice system is paramount, and all people charged with crimes are entitled to a fair trial, no matter who they are.
The same statement acknowledged that while Victoria Police assured the state government that “its practices have changed since the barrister’s recruitment as an informant”, the Victorian community “has a right to further independent assurance that these past practices have been stamped out, as well as an understanding of what happened in this instance”.
“The royal commission will provide that assurance,” the state government said.”
Most complaints about lawyers concern how high their legal fees are. The professional fees charged by lawyers are notorious. When many clients earn an average of $20-40 per hour, it can seem unfair that your lawyers charge you hundreds of dollars per hour. However, as this article will demonstrate, there are reasons why legal fees are so high.
The main reason legal fees are so high is because it costs a lot of money to lawfully run and operate a law firm. Law firms incur all of the costs normally associated with operating an office (rent, wages, photocopy leases, furniture, power, stationary, paper, ink, tax etc). Inner city law firms pay massive amounts of rent and of course this cost gets passed onto you. Additionally, there are extra costs that law firms have to pay, mainly because the legal profession is so highly regulated.
In addition to normal business costs, lawyers also incur the following costs:
Professional indemnity insurance – this is liability insurance that all law practices are required to have. The costs of this depends on the size of the practice, but it is invariably expensive. This insurance is ultimately to the clients’ benefit, as it ensures that in cases where lawyers make mistakes, clients can be compensated for this.
Practicing certificate fees – lawyers also must pay thousands of dollars every year to the Law Society in order to renew their practicing certificates. The cost of a practicing certificate depends on the type of certificate which is granted. Included in the cost of a practicing certificate is a fidelity fund contribution fee of several hundred dollars in order to reimburse clients who are defrauded of money by a small number of unscrupulous members of the profession.
Continuing Professional Development – every year, lawyers are required to complete 10 points CPD as part of their continuing legal education. This typically costs thousands of dollars per practitioner as the seminars/courses that must be attended or undertaken are rather dear. Lawyers can be severely disciplined for not complying with the above requirements. Because a solicitor’s time is worth a lot of money, the monies spent on CPD are arguably small compared to the time expended on CPD which could be used on chargeable activities.
Trust account expenses – most firms hold at least one trust account, which is a bank account where monies which do not belong to the firm are deposited. Examples of trust monies include funds used for paying house deposits or outlays, and monies paid upfront by clients or third party payers on account of the firm’s professional fees. Firms have to pay for annual external audits of their trust accounts, which usually cost a minimum of $1,500. Firms also have to deposit 2/3 of the lowest balance held in their general trust account of the previous year into a separate account. In addition, firms can be audited by the Queensland Law Society, with the costs of such audit being passed onto them. And of course, banks impose monthly account keeping and other fees on solicitors’ trust accounts. Finally, the costs of keeping and maintaining records, including trust accounting software and the time spent by members of the firm also add up.
As a result, the financial costs of practicing law are enormous. There are however other reasons why legal fees are high.
Being a lawyer is one of the most demanding occupations. Lawyers have to negotiate competing demands placed on them by their clients, the courts, their employers, disciplinary bodies and their families. Some clients are difficult or have unrealistic expectations, and this ensures that they walk away unhappy with their lawyer, even when their lawyer has done an OK job.
The law is a competitive, adversarial and aggressive environment. Lawyers typically are required to work long hours, including sometimes on weekends. The consequences of mistakes and failures can be severe, including embarrassment, loss of reputation, being sued and even being disciplined.
As a result of these pressures, lawyers are one of the occupations whose members most prone to suffering depression.
For these reasons it is unsurprising that lawyers expect to be adequately compensated for the work they do.
The process of becoming a lawyer is a long and expensive one. The reality is that lawyers become qualified and eligible for practice at enormous personal and financial cost.
Lawyers have typically gone to university for many years in order to obtain a law degree and have then undertaken a diploma in legal practice in order to become a solicitor, or undergone training and mentoring to become a barrister. Before being able to practice law, they must be admitted to the legal profession. This is an expensive and time-consuming process which involves paying a large fee to the Legal Admissions Board, and filing an application and affidavit in the Supreme Court.
Even when they are admitted to the profession and commence legal practice, it takes years before a lawyer becomes sufficiently experienced and knowledgeable to practice without any supervision.
Put simply, lawyers are so expensive because the financial and other costs of practicing law are enormous. Many of these costs are due to the onerous regulation of the profession. The costs of legal practice inevitably must be passed onto the legal consumer, ie the client.
The good news is that clients can minimise their legal fees, as this article explains.
Some high profile Queensland criminal defence lawyers are being accused of serious fraud offences:
“A cadre of high-profile Brisbane criminal defence lawyers have been charged with defrauding the taxpayer-funded Legal Aid Queensland and laundering money for “serious and organised crime”.
The lawyers — Adam Magill, Corey Mullen and Mitchell Cunningham, all of whom worked at law firm Lawler Magill — and another man were arrested yesterday following an 18-month joint investigation codenamed “Operation Stockade”.
More arrests were expected overnight.
The Crime and Corruption Commission alleged some of the men were involved in defrauding Legal Aid Queensland of about $340,000, and fraud by failing to deposit more than $765,000 into a trust account.
Investigators also alleged some of the men laundered the proceeds of serious criminal offences.”
If these charges are proven, these lawyers may be spending time in prison with some of their former clients. In fact, one of them maybe already has:
“Mr Magill, 47 — a former policeman whose clients have included footballer Karmichael Hunt and Hells Angels member Chris Bloomfield — will appear in Brisbane Magistrates Court today on counts of aggravated fraud, fraudulent falsification of records and aggravated money laundering. He has been remanded in custody.”
What if a lawyer knows that their own client is guilty of the offence(s) for which they have been charged? This is a question that lawyers are often asked, although perhaps surprisingly not often by criminal clients.
In short, the answer depends on whether a lawyer’s knowledge of their client’s guilt arises from the evidence against them, or whether it’s because the client has confessed their guilt to their lawyer.
In the first scenario, the lawyer’s knowledge could perhaps be better characterised as belief if the client disputes their guilt.
On the other hand, when a client confesses to their own lawyer there is almost always no reason for them doing so other than because they are in fact guilty. Their guilt can normally be safely assumed.
This post will address each scenario.
If the evidence against the client is extremely strong and their lawyer believes as a result of the evidence that a conviction is certain, then the lawyer should advise their client to plead guilty. In practice, this is best done after the lawyer has listened to the client’s side of the story for two reasons. Firstly, hearing what the client has to say will ensure that there are no facts that the lawyer is aware or that they have overlooked or not previously been aware of. Secondly, by listening the lawyer will have hopefully built up some rapport so that the client will be more like to take the lawyer’s advice.
When advising the client to plead guilty, the lawyer would need to explain the basis of their opinion to the client so that he or she can make a fully informed decision. It is after all their decision, not the lawyer’s. It would also be important to mention that a guilty plea leads to a reduced sentence and avoids the stress of a trial. If the client takes the advice, then the lawyer has acted in the client’s best interests even though they have been convicted on their own plea. Of course, the interests of justice will also have been furthered in that a guilty person will have been convicted and a trial will have been avoided.
However, if the client listens to the lawyer’s advice and is adamant that they will nevertheless plead not guilty, the lawyer must accept their decision. It is an accused person’s right to plead not guilty, even if they did in fact commit the offence(s) they are charged with. The lawyer must not in any way seek to interfere with that right. Criminal defendant lawyers have often represented clients who they thought were guilty but who wished to plead not guilty. There is nothing wrong with defending a client who the lawyer believes is guilty, for the reasons set out below.
The first reason why it is perfectly ethical to defend a client who the lawyer knows or believes is guilty is that the lawyer is not the person whose role it is to decide whether or not the client is guilty. As Johnathan Goldberg has said, “a defending advocate is not there to stand in judgment upon his own client”. That role belongs to a judge or jury, as the case may be.
Assuming that no evidence is excluded from the trial, the judge or jury reaching the verdict will have all the evidence that the lawyer has to decide for themselves whether or not the client is guilty.
If the lawyer refuses to act for a client because they believe they are guilty, the lawyer is to a degree assuming the judge or jury’s role as being the decider of guilt. As David Whitehouse QC has pointed out:
“Usually I have my own view of the merits of the defence, but even if the prosecution case is very strong, if my client tells me he’s innocent I have to act for him, because it is a cardinal rule of the profession that we are not allowed to refuse to represent someone because we don’t like them or because we don’t believe in their case. Otherwise, some people wouldn’t get a barrister to defend them at all. The system is based on the idea that there’s a barrister on each side, the jury looks at the case from both angles and makes up its mind. It only works properly if both sides are represented.”
Furthermore, what if the lawyer was wrong in their belief that the client was guilty, but continued to act for them and let that belief influence how well they defended the client? Then if the client was convicted, the lawyer would be at least partly responsible for a great injustice. Furthermore, whilst the client can appeal a judge or jury’s decision, if the lawyer decided their client was guilty and let that affect their performance, that would not be a ground for appeal unless that could somehow be proven (which in practice may be very hard to do). It would be extremely improper and dangerous for a lawyer to engage in such hubris.
In practice, a client confessing to their lawyer is almost unheard of, although it did happen in the infamous Lake Pleasant case. Nevertheless, in Australia there are clear rules for lawyers in this situation.
One important rule that applies is client confidentiality. Even if a client confesses to the lawyer, the lawyer is still bound by confidentiality to not disclose that communication to others. If the lawyer is ever called as a witness in court and asked about communications made by the client to the lawyer, the lawyer can and must claim privilege and refuse to answer the question. However, if a client confesses to someone who is not their lawyer (or an employee of a law firm), then such a confession can be disclosed and used in evidence. This is what occurred in the Max Sica trial. Sica was subsequently convicted of a triple murder.
There are sound reasons for client confidentiality. If the lawyer could or had to disclose such confidential communications, then the role of the lawyer would be closer to that of an impartial investigator (such as a police officer) than a lawyer. This could well result in clients not trusting their lawyers and not being frank to their lawyers, even when they are innocent. This in turn can seriously undermine the defence, as the lawyer is not aware of all the facts that may assist or hinder the client’s case.
There are many reasons why someone who is innocent of an offence may require confidentiality in order to have the confidence to reveal things to their lawyers which may assist his or her case. Weakening client confidentiality could result in innocent people being convicted, or mitigating facts not being raised during sentence.
Duty to not mislead the court
Notwithstanding client confidentiality, if the client admitted his or her guilt to the lawyer, the obligation to not mislead the court would still apply. However, in Australia this obligation would alter how the lawyer can defend the client.
If the client tells the lawyer they are guilty the lawyer can still defend them, although the lawyer is not obliged to if someone else can be found in proper time to represent the client and the client does not insist the lawyer represents them. However, in defending the client the lawyer is not allowed to advance a positive case which the lawyer knows to be untrue. This is dealt with in rule 20.2 of the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2011. Those rules provide that in such a case, the lawyer:
(i) must not falsely suggest that some other person committed the offence charged;
(ii) must not set up an affirmative case inconsistent with the confession;
(iii) may argue that the evidence as a whole does not prove that the client is guilty of the offence charged;
(iv) may argue that for some reason of law the client is not guilty of the offence charged; and
(v) may argue that for any other reason not prohibited by (i) and (ii) the client should not be convicted of the offence charged
In other words, the lawyer can put the prosecution to proof (force them to prove their case) and argue that the evidence is not strong enough evidence for the client to be convicted, or argue that the client’s alleged conduct does not amount to a criminal offence for legal reasons. The lawyer can also try to weaken the evidence by cross-examining witnesses (without advancing a positive case), arguing that particular pieces of evidence prove little and so on. However, the lawyer is not permitted to submit to the court that my client has an alibi, has committed the offence in self-defence or advance some other evidence or explanation the lawyer knows to be false.
As this post demonstrates, the answer to the question of what s lawyer should do when they know or believe their client is guilty is somewhat complicated. And no doubt it is controversial. After-all, if a client has told the lawyer they are guilty and the lawyer’s efforts helped them escape conviction, then the lawyer has helped a guilty person ‘get away with it’. However, the current requirements are justified when one looks beyond the circumstances of the case and looks at the broader considerations, including the lawyer’s role as an advocate rather than an investigator or jury, and the importance of client confidentiality. However, the duty to not mislead the court is paramount. Whilst the lawyer is not permitted to disclose client confessions to the court, the lawyer is also prohibited from misleading the court by adducing evidence or making submissions that they know to be false.
There are many aspects to the solicitor-barrister relationship. In some ways the relationship is symbiotic: solicitors need barristers when a case requires specialist advice or is going to trial, and barristers need solicitors to refer work to them. It is certainly in the interests of solicitors to have good relations with at least some barristers and vice versa. However, many (but not all) barristers consider themselves to be the more senior arm of the profession, to the chagrin of solicitors.
When a barrister is instructed by the solicitor, the two act as a team in preparing for and presenting the client’s case. The solicitor’s role is to obtain the client’s instructions, sort the facts in a digestible format for the barrister and to gather the relevant information and evidence in preparation for hearing. The barrister on the other hand provides advice and performs the advocacy work in court. When the solicitor and barrister work well together, that is to the benefit of the client, whose chances of a favourable outcome are increased.
However, two Discipline Applications brought against solicitors in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) in 2013 show that disputes can arise between solicitors and barristers that can have serious consequences for the legal practitioner found to have acted unethically.
Continue reading “When the Solicitor-Barrister relationship turns sour”