Clayton Utz and the lingering smell of smoke

Are you a commercial litigator with an interest in client confidentiality and conflicts of interest? Or in schadenfreude?

Then you will probably appreciate Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth’s decision last month in Dale v Clayton Utz (No 2) [2013] VSC 54

A quick refresher before the summary.

Allan Myers QC and Clayton Utz both have singular reputations among Australian lawyers.

Myers is a top shelf commercial silk and philanthropist. His fame, prestige and profile are surely matched by few other practising lawyers in the nation. Apart from that, in his spare time he has dabbled in investments sufficiently to acquire, among other things, a Polish brewery, vast tracts of outback Australia and an entry in BRW’s Richest 200 list.

Clayton Utz’s reputation is more enigmatic. It is a mega firm employing hundreds of no-doubt talented and principled lawyers. But in the public mind it is arguably still best known for its murky role defending Big Tobacco against a claim by a dying ex-smoker, Mrs Rolah McCabe in 2002.

Mrs McCabe won at first instance (see decision here) after the cigarette company’s defence was struck out. The trial judge concluded, among other things, that through its “document retention policy”, the process of discovery in the case had been subverted by the defendant and its solicitors (Clayton Utz) with the deliberate intention of denying a fair trial to the plaintiff.

That decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal here but Clayton’s Utz’s judicial vindication was undermined by the PR shellacking The Age (and other media) gave Clutz and its client in stories like this and this.

How did the The Age get its material?

We now know that some of The Age’s information was leaked to it in 2006 by one time Clayton Utz litigation partner (and also 2004 Law Institute of Victoria president) Chris Dale.

For reasons which the Supreme Court might yet find were or were not related to the McCabe case, Clayton Utz had expelled Dale from its partnership a year earlier in October 2005.

Almost six years later, in September 2011, Dale sued Clayton Utz for breach of the partnership agreement.

Which brings us back to the Victorian Supreme Court’s recent decision.

Clutz filed its defence against Dale in January 2012. That defence was signed by Allan Myers QC.

Dale promptly objected to Myers’ involvement. He said that Myers had advised him in relation to his dealings with the Clutz partnership during 2004 and 2005 and accordingly Myers should not act against him now.

Clutz held its ground so Dale sought an injunction to prevent Myers acting further in the case.

Last month Dale won that argument and Myers exited the proceeding. (The wider dispute between Dale and the partnership remains to be determined.)

Justice Hollingworth’s 40 page judgment is a good read. There is something in it for you whether you are in the mood for a John Grisham-style legal who-dunnit or some pointers on how not to draw affidavits on this type of issue, lawyers’ obligations to parties they have formerly (and possibly informally as well) advised, concepts of ‘contractual’ and ‘consensual’ retainers and much else besides.

But the most confronting topic for mine is the treatment of obligations towards former clients (including people who might never have been ‘clients’ in a formal sense).

In short, Dale swore on affidavit and in cross-examination that as his relationship with the Clutz partnership frayed in 2004 and 2005 he sought and obtained Myers’ oral advice.

Myers denied this on affidavit and was not cross-examined.

Dale’s version (at least as to a single conference of about one hour’s duration in 2004) was preferred by Hollingworth J thus –

33     In so far as Mr Myers states … that he “was not retained” by Mr Dale, I read that as no more than a statement of his personal belief that he was not retained. Mr Myers cannot give evidence as to whether he was in fact retained. Whether or not there was a retainer is a legal matter for the court to determine, from the objective facts, and not from the subjective beliefs of the lawyer or the party alleging to have retained the lawyer.

….

59     In so far as Mr Myers states … that he was not asked to and did not provide legal advice to Mr Dale, given that he has no memory of this conversation at all, I read that as no more than a statement of his personal belief … that he was not retained to provide legal advice.

 ….

135   I accept that Mr Myers did not believe he was being professionally retained. But Mr Myers did not say to Mr Dale that he was seeing him other than in his capacity as senior counsel, even though the discussion lasted for about an hour and went into some detail about Mr Dale’s current predicament. Someone in Mr Myers’ position could easily have taken steps to make it clear that he was not acting in a professional capacity.

….

Conclusion

176   I propose to grant an injunction to restrain Clayton Utz from continuing to engage Mr Myers in this proceeding. Such an injunction would be justified by any of the following findings:

(a)     That a professional relationship existed between Mr Dale and Mr Myers in relation to the August 2004 meeting;

(b)     Further and alternatively, that Mr Dale communicated confidential information to Mr Dale [sic.— Myers?] in the August 2004 meeting, and there is a real and sensible possibility of a revival of recollection, about matters which are of critical importance in this proceeding;

(c)      Further and alternatively, because a fair-minded, reasonably informed member of the public would conclude that the proper administration of justice required that to occur.

The bottom line for Clayton Utz? The firm needs a new silk in for its continuing stoush with Dale.

The bottom line for the rest of us? An hour’s discussion about which you have absolutely no memory or record can be enough nine years later to have you ejected from acting in litigation against the other party to that forgotten discussion.

For the record:

  • Hollingworth J stated (at para 121) “By accepting Mr Dale’s account, I am not in any way suggesting that Mr Myers is not a truthful witness”.
  • In late 2001 or early 2002 I acted for Mrs Rolah McCabe for approximately 48 hours in her case against Clayton Utz’s then-client British and American Tobacco Australia Services Pty Ltd.

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