Commercial litigators referred to the DPP and ordered to pay their clients $11.7 m

Banksia Securities is civil litigation’s ‘Lawyer X’ moment. It is “one of the darkest chapters in the legal history of this state,” according to the Victorian Supreme Court’s Justice John Dixon.

Dixon J. delivered this assessment in Bolitho v Banksia Securities (No 18)(remitter) [2021] VSC 666 on Monday.

He ordered two barristers, three solicitors and a litigation funder to pay their own clients damages of $11.7 million plus indemnity costs.

It is the latest crescendo in a slow-burn case spanning years. And there might be more to come because Dixon J. also ordered that the matter’s papers be provided to the Director of Public Prosecutions (plainly with view to potential fraud-related charges against some of the lawyers).

Here is the nutshell version of Banksia Securities to date. A class action for 16,000 mainly elderly investors was settled for $64 million in 2017. The plaintiffs’ lawyers then put their heads together to milk their clients of more than $19 million in legal costs and litigation funder’s commission. Between them, the lawyers’ efforts at securing this recompense included misleading the Court, reverse-engineering invoices, backdating costs agreements and destroying documents.

But two of the lawyers’ braver clients smelled a rat and spoke up.

A judicial bollocking has now resulted.

“Moral atrophy”, “disingenuous”, “intention to conceal”, “deliberately destroyed documentary evidence”, “nefarious”, “incompetent”, “extraordinarily casual”, “gross dereliction” and “knowingly false” are some of the phrases applied to particular lawyers in the decision. Dixon J. differentiates between the lawyers (for example, one solicitor is found to have been grossly derelict but not dishonest) but their collective efforts were cumulative and, in Dixon J.’s words, “The victim was the administration of justice.”

Two barristers – Norman O’Bryan SC and his junior Michael Symons – have already lost their tickets. They might yet lose their liberty depending on how things pan out with the DPP. The two surviving solicitors have been directed to show cause why they should not lose their tickets too.

I will try to blog further about this case when I have digested the 696-page judgment but in the interim the Court’s own three-page case summary will give you a taste.

My initial takeaways?

  • The Civil Procedure Act is more than a list of platitudes. Breaching it has just cost some commercial litigators millions of dollars. Complying with it (and also the Uniform Law as to costs disclosure) would have saved them that money plus their reputations, livelihoods and potentially some jail time too.
  • Pause if you ever find yourself at either end of an email between lawyers that proposes the deletion of documents. Is such a course likely to end well? And whether it is acted on or not, how is that proposal going to look if the email ever find its way into evidence?
  • Nothing about the case suggests that this was a debut performance by its ignominious ringleaders. If I had ever been represented by Norman O’Bryan SC or solicitor Mark Elliott I would now be dusting off their invoices to me with very deep suspicion.

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