Our dishevelled new Uniform Law

What a shambolic creature is the new Legal Profession Uniform Law.

I attempted to translate its provisions relating to costs disclosure and recovery in a presentation for the Goulburn Valley Law Association this week. I reckon I did a reasonably accurate job. I could tell this because my attentive audience seemed to be suitably irritated and confused by the end.

Anybody who claims an entirely confident understanding of the Uniform Law has obviously not read it properly.

By itself, the Uniform Law is frequently unintelligible without reference to the local (ie state) law which adopts it.Because of this, the Uniform Law in Victoria is actually a schedule to the zippily-named Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act 2014.

This unattractive combination adds up to a combined total of approximately 570 pages and 120,000 words. And that’s before you reach for a third necessary document, the Legal Profession Uniform General Rules 2015 (and disregard other related subordinate legislation).

Between them, these three documents are ostensibly organised into various chapters, parts, divisions and schedules. Indeed, they seem to have more chapters than the Freemasons, more parts than Shakespeare, more divisions than Stalin and more schedules than V/Line. But you can’t be entirely sure because the centrepiece document, the Uniform Law itself, has no index whatsoever and the pagination doesn’t help.

That is bizarre in any legislation but particularly in something that presumably is meant to be accessible to, among others, disgruntled clients looking as lay people to the law for guidance about their rights and obligations vis-a-via their lawyers.

But given the sheer bulk of the Uniform Law package, it must be extraordinarily precise, right?

Wrong again.The mandarins responsible for administering it (for Victorians that means a combination of the Sydney-based Legal Services Council and the Melbourne-based Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner) have separate websites, each featuring information sheets for clients and for legal practitioners.

Alas, some of the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s info appears to relate to superseded legislation and not to the Uniform Law at all.

And at least one of the Legal Services Council’s flyers makes the confident assertion that the Uniform Law “does not permit” lawyers to express estimated future costs to their clients as a range.

This “cost-estimates-must-not-be-expressed-as-a-range” view is an urban myth also gaining currency at high levels in Victoria.

But it is wrong. (Look, at least, at s 182(3) of the Uniform Law regarding conditional costs agreements and then look (in vain) for any prohibition on cost estimates being expressed as a range in other contexts.)

In August 2015, the Victorian Law Institute Journal breathlessly introduced the Uniform Law to its readers with a cover story entitled “Empowering Clients”. What nonsense. If any lay client can navigate the Uniform Law without professional assistance (which seems improbable) he/she would almost certainly have found (substantially) the same answers much faster under the now-repealed Legal Profession Act.

How did we get lumbered with the Uniform Law? It seemed a good idea to the Council of Australian Governments back in 2009 to have uniform nationwide legislation for the various jurisdictions’ barristers and solicitors. This might have made sense if most of our lawyers and clients were dealing with each other on a nation-wide basis.

But in the real world only substantial commercial and government clients generally operate on that basis. So guess which class of clients is largely excluded from the “protections” offered to clients by the costs provisions of the Uniform Law? You guessed it. Commercial and government clients.

What a mess. Little wonder that since the idea’s inception in 2009 every jurisdiction except Victoria and New South Wales has slipped off the Uniform Law bandwagon.

But enough venting from me.

I ended my Goulburn Valley Law Association presentation this week with what I hope are four practical observations:

  • As ever, costs are only recoverable by solicitors to the extent those costs are fair and reasonable. Costs agreements are prima facie evidence only as to what is fair and reasonable – see s 172(4).
  • Solicitors’ enforcement of costs agreements against clients hinge first and foremost on adequate costs disclosure at the front end. Position yourself to be able to demonstrate this. Employing the LIV’s template disclosure and costs agreement document will be a good start.
  • Even perfect front-end written costs disclosure of itself might still not be sufficient. For the purposes of s 174 of the Uniform Law, solicitors should ideally verify and document the client’s receipt and apparent comprehension of that written disclosure. (The Law Society of NSW suggests a short (and documented) Q & A exchange with the client about the client’s expectations as to costs and strategy following delivery of the written material as one mode of evidencing the client’s apparent understanding of that material.)
  • Perfect disclosure should ensure a valid costs agreement but even a perfect costs agreement isn’t bullet-proof either – see s 199 and s 200. Because of this, there will probably be situations where it will be fastest and cheapest for solicitors to grasp the nettle and initiate a costs assessment (aka a taxation) of their own bills rather than to sue for fees only to have their proceeding stayed pending an assessment anyway. But don’t think about this idea  too long if you are a solicitor because you might be statute-barred by s 198(4) if you wait more than 12 months from the date of your bill before seeking the costs assessment.

Need further clarification? Then reach for the Uniform Law with trepidation.


					

Retail tenant ordered to pay its landlord’s costs. Again.

In May this year I blogged (here) about the retail tenant that won a VCAT claim and received nothing but an adverse costs order for its trouble. Subsequently the tenant appealed the costs order (but, interestingly, not VCAT’s refusal to allow it damages) to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal (comprising Hansen JA, Ferguson JA and McLeish J) delivered its decision last Thursday. The joint judgment was more bad news for the tenant.The decision is 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VSC 8216.
In a nutshell, the Court of Appeal said that VCAT’s Judge Jenkins sitting at first instance had set her reasoning out sufficiently and that it was “only in exceptional cases” that leave to appeal from a costs order would be granted. Leave to appeal was accordingly refused with the further comment that even if leave to appeal had been granted the appeal would still have been dismissed.
My colleagues Robert Hay QC and Sam Hopper have respectively blogged about the appeal decision here and here with Hopper suggesting that the decision might discourage some weaker retail claims in what is usually a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeal, of course, has never been a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction. Although it is not apparent from the judgment, the landlord last Thursday made a Calderbank-based application for costs of the appeal on an indemnity basis. Finally there was a small win for the tenant. It was ordered to pay the landlord’s costs of the appeal but only on the standard basis.

Retail tenant wins VCAT fight but gets nil damages and an adverse costs order

VCAT’s no costs presumption is more elastic in some parts of the tribunal than in others.

In building cases, the losers commonly pay the winners’ costs. In retail tenancies disputes the losers very rarely do. But the winner paying the loser’s costs? Calderbanks and their equivalents aside, it is almost unheard of  anywhere at VCAT or beyond it.

So imagine the winner’s chagrin in the retail tenancies case of 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VCAT 596 when it won the liability stoush, produced an expert report seeking just over $3m in damages and then received nothing but an order to pay the ostensible loser’s costs.

The case is an illustration of one of the hazards of compartmentalising a single business within separate corporate vehicles.

24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd was the tenant. A gym operated on the premises. Unremarkably, the landlord understood that the tenant owned the gym.

Back in 2013, the tenant claimed the landlord had breached a provision of the lease. VCAT agreed. The matter was eventually relisted three years later for an assessment of damages the tenant had suffered by reason of the landlord’s breach.

But in March this year, on day 1 of what was to have been a five-day hearing, the evidentiary penny dropped.

The tenant had never owned or operated the gym (or even any other business). Instead, a company associated with the tenant, ran the gym business. That associated company was a complete stranger to the lease. It occupied the premises and operated the gym entirely without the landlord’s knowledge or permission. Its business might have suffered by reason of the landlord’s non-compliance with the lease but, being a stranger to the lease, it couldn’t recover from the landlord for that breach.

And because the ostensible tenant had no direct interest in the business which claimed to have suffered the financial loss, it could not show any compensable loss referable to the landlord’s breach either.

In the costs decision published last month, Judge Jenkins took a dim view of the tenant conflating itself, its associated company and the associated company’s business for the purposes of the VCAT litigation.

Necessarily, her starting point was s. 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003. That section proscribes costs orders in VCAT retail tenancy disputes unless a party has “conducted the proceeding in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the other party to the proceeding”. (The other exception, refusal to participate sufficiently in mediation or ADR, did not arise.)

What does “vexatious” mean? The tribunal’s answer includes a handy survey of authorities dealing with exceptional costs orders in both courts and tribunals and (at para 19) this checklist of matters to be taken into account when considering whether to order indemnity costs:

  1.  Whether a party has been forced to take legal proceedings entirely through the wrongful or inappropriate conduct of the other party;
  2. Whether an action has been commenced or continued in circumstances where the applicant, properly advised, should have known he had no chance of success;
  3. Where a party persists in what should, on proper consideration, be seen to be a hopeless case;
  4. Whether the party against whom indemnity costs are sought has made a false allegation of fraud;
  5. Particular misconduct that causes a loss of time to the Court and the parties;
  6. Commencing or continuing proceedings for an ulterior motive or in wilful disregard of known facts or clearly established law; 
  7. Making allegations which ought never to have been made or undue prolongation of a case by groundless contentions; and
  8. An imprudent refusal of an offer of compromise.

Judge Jenkins found five of the eight matters on that list present in the case before her. She ordered the tenant to pay the landlord’s costs relating to the preparation of the damages hearing dating all the way back to 2013.

The tenant did have one minor win. The landlord had asked for indemnity costs but failed. Judge Jenkins found there was insufficient evidence to justify an inference that the tenant was motivated in its claim by an ulterior motive. She held that indemnity costs were reserved “for the most exceptional circumstances” and that solicitor and client costs (which she suggested were similar if not equivalent to standard basis costs) would suffice.

The lesson? If a lease (or any other type of contract for that matter) has been breached but the resulting loss has been suffered by a stranger to that agreement, any resulting commercial litigation might not be very commercial at all.

POSTSCRIPT: The Court of Appeal subsequently upheld Judge Jenkin’s decision. See my brief blog on the appeal decision here.