Former Victorian criminal barrister Nicola Gobbo represented a number of high-profile clients during her career at the bar. It was later discovered that she had also been acting as a police informant, and was using confidential information obtained from her clients to assist police in obtaining evidence. This revelation sparked a royal commission in Victoria, and Gobbo’s evidence at the royal commission suggested her motivation for this extraordinary course of conduct was to feel valued.
Gobbo had not held a practising certificate since 2014.
Some of Gobbo’s clients have subsequently applied to set aside their own convictions given that Gobbo had informed on them.
An agreed statements of facts tendered pursuant to s 191 of the Evidence Act 2008 (Vic) revealed that the application for removal from the roll related to Gobbo acting for six different clients, but that prior to this, Gobbo’s affidavit sworn for the purpose of admission to practice did not disclose an ongoing association beyond September 1993 with her housemate who was also charged with drug offences, or that further charges that had been brought against him.
Lawyers Weekly recently reported that Nicola Gobbo had been removed from the roll of practitioners due to her role as a police informant against her own clients.
The Barristers’ Conduct Rules relevantly provides as follows:
12. A barrister must not engage in conduct which is:
(a) dishonest or otherwise discreditable to a barrister;
(b) prejudicial to the administration of justice; or
(c) likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute.
13.A barrister must not engage in another vocation which:
(a) is liable to adversely affect the reputation of the legal profession or the barrister’s own reputation;
(b) is likely to impair or conflict with the barrister’s duties to clients; or
(c) prejudices a barrister’s ability to attend properly to the interests of the barrister’s clients.
108. A barrister must not disclose (except as compelled by law) or use in any way confidential information obtained by the barrister in the course of practice concerning any person to whom the barrister owes some duty or obligation to keep such information confidential unless or until: (a) the information is later obtained by the barrister from another person who is not bound by the confidentiality owed by the barrister to the first person and who does not give the information confidentially to the barrister; or (b) the person has consented to the barrister disclosing or using the information generally or on specific terms; or (c) the barrister discloses the information in a confidential setting, for the sole purpose of obtaining advice in connection with the barrister’s legal or ethical obligations.
In Ziems v The Prothonotary of The Supreme Court of N.S.W. (1957) 97 CLR 279, Kitto observed that:
“The issue is whether the appellant is shown not to be a fit and proper person to be a member of the Bar of New South Wales. It is not capable of more precise statement. The answer must depend upon one’s conception of the minimum standards demanded by a due recognition of the peculiar position and functions of a barrister in a system which treats the Bar as in fact, whether or not it is also in law, a separate and distinct branch of the legal profession. It has been said before, and in this case the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has said again, that the Bar is no ordinary profession or occupation. These are not empty words, nor is it their purpose to express or encourage professional pretensions. They should be understood as a reminder that a barrister is more than his client’s confidant, adviser and advocate, and must therefore possess more than honesty, learning and forensic ability. He is, by virtue of a long tradition, in a relationship of intimate collaboration with the judges, as well as with his fellow-members of the Bar, in the high task of endeavouring to make successful the service of the law to the community. That is a delicate relationship, and it carries exceptional privileges and exceptional obligations. If a barrister is found to be, for any reason, an unsuitable person to share in the enjoyment of those privileges and in the effective discharge of those responsibilities, he is not a fit and proper person to remain at the Bar.”
As was observed in Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v Horak  VSC 780 (15 December 2016):
“In order to exercise its discretion to remove a practitioner from the roll, the Court must be satisfied at the time of the hearing that the practitioner is not a fit and proper person to be a legal practitioner, and is likely to remain so for the indefinite future.”
Breaching client confidentiality has been held to amount to professional misconduct in Queensland. The practitioner in that case was removed from the roll for disclosing the confidential information on national television.
Justice Jacinta Forbes QC of the Supreme Court of Victoria removed Ms Gobbo from the roll of lawyers in that state. This decision was made with Gobbo’s consent. The reasons have now been published.
Forbes J quoted the High Court’s conclusions in AB (a pseudonym) v CD (a pseudonym); EF (a pseudonym) v CD (a pseudonym) (2019) 362 ALR 1 with respect to Gobbo’s conduct:
“[Gobbo’s] actions in purporting to act as counsel for the Convicted Persons while covertly informing against them were fundamental and appalling breaches of [Gobbo’s]’s obligations as counsel to her clients and of [Gobbo’s]’s duties to the court.”
Forbes J concurred with those observations, and held that Gobbo’s conduct “demonstrated partiality and so lacked honesty”.
Forbes J held that whilst the content and omissions in the affidavit sworn for the purpose of admission to practice might not standing alone warrant removal from the roll, Gobbo’s later conduct as a barrister meant that “her position is not capable of rehabilitation”.
For these reasons, Gobbo was not a fit and proper person and had to be removed from the roll (struck off). This means she will never practice as a lawyer again.
It is hard to think of a more serious breach of a lawyer’s duties to their client than informing on them to the police. Nicola Gobbo committed this gross breach of trust on numerous occasions over a course of years. The result was legal pandemonium in Victoria that will take years to be resolved. Public confidence in the administration of justice in Victoria is also likely to have been impacted. In addition, there was non-disclosure of material facts in her application for admission to the legal profession. For all of these reasons, a striking off order was the logical outcome.