Client complaints – a tool kit for solicitors

Some lawyers have never received a complaint from a client.

Or so they say.

Such prodigies, liars and recent arrivals to the profession are vastly outnumbered by the rest of us.

This might explain the big audience of solicitors who turned out this week at a seminar Gordon & Jackson hosted on the twin topics of client complaints and recent cases dealing with the Civil Procedure Act.

I delivered a paper on the first topic. The paper’s section headings will give you the flavour of its content:

  1. Complaints are inevitable;
  2. Try not to take complaints personally (and get help, of whatever variety);
  3. Categories of complaint under the Uniform Law;
  4. Categories of complaint beyond the Uniform Law;
  5. Your LPLC insurance – the good news and the bad;
  6. Avoiding complaints in the first place; and
  7. Professional standards scheme – you are a participant, aren’t you?

My colleague Monika Paszkiewicz spoke on the Civil Procedure Act. Her paper includes reference to Judd J’s recent observations (in ACN 005 490 540 Pty Ltd v Robert Frederick James Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 217 at paras 18 -19) that solicitors who threaten each other too willingly with personal costs applications under the Civil Procedure Act might themselves be breaching the very statute they are invoking.

Client complaints and the Civil Procedure Act have obvious potential overlap for litigation solicitors. Download the two papers (combined as a single document) here and file them away with your Civil Procedure Act resources.

Enough already? The LSC’s new guidelines on estimating legal costs for disclosure purposes

Precisely what costs estimate does the Uniform Law require of lawyers? The Legal Services Council’s first official guideline and direction attempts to answer this question.

It has an almost identical twin (here) issued the same day by the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation. The two guidelines and directions are accompanied on the Legal Services Council website by a document containing three “worked examples” of what our regulators consider to be acceptable costs disclosure.

Together these three documents are intended to give guidance to the costs disclosure obligations imposed on Victorian and NSW lawyers by s 174(1) of the Uniform Law. The documents might improve your estimates but they are unlikely to improve your estimation of the new Uniform Law regime.

First, a quick refresher on the Uniform Law itself. It requires lawyers’ costs to be fair and reasonable (s 172) and voids lawyers’ costs agreements wherever, inter alia, costs have not been properly disclosed to the client (s 178(1)). The starting point for that requirement is the much-maligned s 174 –

174  Disclosure obligations of law practice regarding clients

(1)  Main disclosure requirement

A law practice—

(a)  must, when or as soon as practicable after instructions are initially given in a matter, provide the client with information disclosing the basis on which legal costs will be calculated in the matter and an estimate of the total legal costs; and

(b)  must, when or as soon as practicable after there is any significant change to anything previously disclosed under this subsection, provide the client with information disclosing the change, including information about any significant change to the legal costs that will be payable by the client —

together with the information referred to in subsection (2).

The two new guidelines and directions are substantively identical with the effect that their shortcomings and the demands on the reader’s time are duplicated but their meaning is not.

Both guidelines and directions state that –

  • the estimate required by s 174 “is a reasonable approximation of the total costs a client is likely to have to pay in the matter for which instructions have been given, expressed as a single figure, from time to time…”[emphasis added]
  • the provision of additional information to clients beyond that required by s 174 “should be encouraged” and that further information about likely costs might be “expressed as a single figure or as a range of figures, PROVIDED [original emphasis] the law practice always gives the single figure estimate of the total legal costs in the matter that s 174(1)(a) requires.”
  • “It is permissible and may be desirable to preface a single figure estimate with the word ‘about’ to reflect the fact that the figure is an estimate and is not a fixed fee.”

Note the brave but dubious assertion that s 174(1)(a) of the Uniform Law requires “a single figure estimate.” Now turn to the “worked examples” which accompany the guidelines and see how the three examples illustrate how the “single figure estimate” concept can (and it seems should) be routinely subverted.

The first example is a debt recovery matter. It begins with instructions to the lawyer only to issue a letter of demand (for which a single figure estimate is given) and culminates (after a series of presumably ascending single figure estimates) in litigation including a crossclaim whereupon the “lawyer indicates that the [most recent] estimated figure might vary by +/- 10 per cent”.

This is surely incongruous. It seems that the Legal Services Council believes that the pro-active lawyer who advised her client on day one that a debt claim might resolve quickly after a letter of demand or might run all the way to the conclusion of complex litigation and therefore cost in the range of, say, $500 – $15,000 depending on those variables will have comprehensively breached her disclosure obligations under s 174 of the Uniform Law. On the other hand, the dullard solicitor who plods blindly down the road towards litigation,giving his client only a series of single-figure cost estimates to the conclusion of the very next step, is supposedly satisfying the obligations of s 174.

There is more. Each of the three “worked examples” published with the guidelines and directions includes an estimate with a stated percentage deviation range. There is something ridiculous about lawyers being prohibited from estimating costs to clients as a range (e.g. $850 to $1150) while being simultaneously encouraged to provide precisely the same information expressed as a mathematical formula (e.g. $1000 +/- 15 per cent).

There is a warning that the percentage deviation figures are “an illustration only and do not alter the obligation to provide a single figure estimate nor is it intended to encourage an unreasonably broad estimate”. This invites the question of what percentage deviation is “unreasonably broad.” It seems from one of the examples that “plus or minus 15 per cent” might be reasonable. What about plus or minus 30 per cent? Or 50 per cent?  Or 100 per cent? As judged by whom? When?

Alas, for the moment we can only guess.

Finally, a word about the legal status of these official pronouncements. Under s 407 of the Uniform Law, the Legal Services Council and the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services may each issue “guidelines or directions”. Local regulatory authorities (eg the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner and Victorian Legal Services Board) must comply with such directions (s 407(1)) and hence the directions have the status of subordinate legislation. But the status of the guidelines incorporated in the same documents is less clear. Presumably the guidelines and the worked examples will have persuasive effect at least with the various costs assessors required to adjudicate on the adequacy of lawyers’ costs disclosure.

For more on the costs provisions of the Uniform Law see this introductory paper and these blog posts:

 

 

Waiter! There’s a Chinese restaurant in my easement!

The lawyer who acts for himself is commonly thought to have a fool for a client. But what about the lawyer who acts for the company of which he is a director and shareholder?

A Melbourne solicitor who acted in several capacities for a private company must now be pondering this question following the non-party indemnity costs order made against him personally in 1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd v Power & Ors (no 2) [2015] VSC 735. (The case was decided just before Christmas but somehow was published on Jade only this week).

The solicitor was (indirectly) one of the main shareholders in 1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd (“Stud Rd”). He was also its company secretary and one of its two directors. He dealt on its behalf in several controversial transactions and also acted as its solicitor in both litigation and conveyancing contexts.

In 2007, Stud Rd bought a block of land in Rowville. The block’s only road access was via an easement. But two years earlier a neighbour had built a Chinese restaurant on that easement.

In 2012, Stud Rd sold its landlocked block for $2.3 million. Its s 32 statement neglected to mention the slight issue of the obstructed easement. That sale then fell over before settlement and Stud Rd sued the purchaser and also the owner of the offending restaurant (“Palms”).

Early in the litigation, Palms demanded security for costs from Stud Rd. Stud Rd’s solicitor/company director/company secretary/etc. wrote back refusing and saying that Stud Rd had ample equity in the Rowville land and could afford to meet any likely costs order against it. That much was true.

But things changed when Stud Rd subsequently sold the land afresh. The new sale wasn’t disclosed to the other litigants nor was the new contract of sale discovered pursuant to Stud Rd’s continuing discovery obligations. Stud Rd also omitted to mention to the other parties its distribution of the net sale proceeds to various of its own related interests.

As the trial loomed closer, Stud Rd went into voluntary liquidation. The proceeding was discontinued before trial as a consequence.Palms had nevertheless spent over $300,000 preparing for the trial. There being no prospect of recovering those costs from the liquidated company, Palms applied instead for non-party costs orders against Stud Rd’s solicitors and its two directors personally.

Palms succeeded – but only against the director who had also acted as the company’s solicitor. His multi-faceted role as the company’s director, shareholder AND external solicitor was said by Vickery J to constitute “exceptional circumstances”.
Here is a taste:

138. It is clear that [the solicitor], in conducting the Proceeding as a solicitor on behalf of the Plaintiff, in respect of which he was not only a director but also, through a corporate vehicle, a shareholder, was in breach of paragraphs 9.2 and 13.4 of the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 and placed himself at serious risk of being in breach of paragraph 13.1 of the rules. As a solicitor in active practice, [the solicitor] ought to have been aware of the effect of these Rules.
139. This placed [the solicitor] in a conflict of interest and rendered his conduct of the litigation on behalf of the Plaintiff improper.
140. This was so despite the fact that, during the life of the Proceeding, neither Palms nor its solicitors … ever once raised the issue of conflict of interest or demand that [the solicitor], or any of the firms at which he worked, cease to act in the Proceeding due to his conflict.
141. Reference is made to paragraphs 9.2, 13.1 and 13.4 of the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 published by the Law Institute of Victoria, which was tendered in evidence:
9.2 A practitioner must not accept instructions to act or continue to act for a person in any matter when the practitioner is, or becomes, aware that the person’s interest in the matter is, or would be, in conflict with the practitioner’s own interest or the interest of an associate.
….
13.1 A practitioner must not act as the mere mouthpiece of the client or of the instructing practitioner and must exercise the forensic judgments called for during the case independently, after appropriate consideration of the client’s and any instructing practitioner’s wishes where practicable.
13.4 A practitioner must not unless exceptional circumstances warrant otherwise in the practitioner’s considered opinion:
13.4.1 appear for a client at any hearing, or
13.4.2 continue to act for a client,
in a case in which it is known, or becomes apparent, that the practitioner will be required to give evidence material to the determination of contested issues before the court.

142. It is likely that [the solicitor] was not able to bring an independent mind to decisions made on behalf of the Plaintiff in the conduct of the Proceeding by reason of his conflict of interest and it is likely that a number of the decisions he made were infected with this conflict.
143. An order for costs against a non-party is not dependent upon, but can take into account, any improper conduct by the non-party….

The upshot was that the solicitor personally [cf the firm that employed him] was ordered to pay Palms’ cost of the proceeding on a standard basis until the date of the undisclosed sale and on an indemnity basis thereafter.
A final point is worth noting. Palms’ application was brought partly in reliance upon s 29 of the Civil Procedure Act [as discussed in Yara v Oswal blogged here] but that limb of the application was held to be statute-barred as it had not been made before the proceeding was “finalised” as required by s 30. However, this missed deadline did not matter for Palms as the Court held that it had power to order the costs against the solicitor under s 24 of the Supreme Court Act and/or in its inherent jurisdiction.

The lessons from this case? Four occur to me.

  • Acting for yourself and/or interests close to you is perilous.
  • A lawyer and client with apparently aligned commercial interests might still have a conflict of interest if the lawyer’s forensic judgment is thought to be compromised as a result of that close association.
  • Lawyers should not act in matters in which they are likely to be material witnesses.
  • And finally, never be too reassured by the fact that no conflict of interest is suggested by your opponents.

County Court scales up on costs

Are you a County Court litigator charging scale? If so, congratulations; you got a pay rise this week.

Commiserations on the other hand if you a County Court litigant already rueful about rejecting a shrewd offer of compromise. Your burden just got heavier.

The County Court of Victoria has amended its cost rule, Order 63A.

For beneficiaries of scale costs (lawyers and successful litigants especially) this is good news.

There are two key changes.

The first is the axing of the County Court’s own stand-alone scale. Instead, the County Court Civil Procedure Rules now apply the Supreme Court’s scale but discounts it a uniform 20 per cent.

Take, for example, the scale allowances for a solicitor’s time. Under the former County Court scale, a solicitor’s time was allowable at $277 per hour for attending a conference and $546 per half day instructing in Court.

That same solicitor’s time under the new County Court costs regime is now worth $296 per hour (ie 80 per cent of the Supreme Court rate of $370 per hour). As is in the Supreme, costs are now claimable on an hourly basis and also in 6 minute units but the half-day rate for solicitors’ time is gone.

The second key change is the end of ‘party and party costs’. The new default measure of costs is ‘standard basis’ (which is really ‘solicitor and client’ costs by another name). (Indemnity costs remain as the juicer alternative). This change echoes the Supreme Court’s costs reforms of last year (as to which see my blog of the time here).

Some other features of the new County Court costs regime:

  • Costs of pleading amendments (whether with or without leave) are now costs in the proceeding unless the Court otherwise orders (CCR 63A.17);
  • Similarly, costs of interlocutory applications will be costs in the proceeding absent an order to the contrary (CCR 63A 20.1) (Incidentally, this rule has no direct Supreme Court equivalent);
  • Interlocutory costs orders are payable “forthwith” (CCR 63A.03(2)) but unless the Court otherwise orders those costs may not be taxed until the entire proceeding is completed (CCR 63A 20.1). (This is likely to have a glacial effect on the concept of “forthwith”).
  • The entire Order 63A continues to be ostensibly premised on the “County Court scale of costs” as if such a document exists. But it simply doesn’t. Instead CCR 1.13 gives legal force to the mirage by providing, “County Court scale of costs” means a fee, charge or amount that is 80 per cent of the applicable rate set out in Appendix A to Chapter 1 of the Rules of the Supreme Court.”
  • The new rules and costs apply from 7 October 2014 irrespective of when the proceeding involved commenced (CCR 63A.83).

(Thanks to barrister Mark Lapirow for alerting me to the new Order 63A before the ink had even dried on it.)

Some thoughts before you speak

If you haven’t sat through a thousand awful lectures, submissions and presentations you probably aren’t a real lawyer.

And if you have applied the unintended lessons of all that professional experience and training you are probably a dreadful public speaker as a consequence.

I was reminded of this when I attended a presentation this week on presentation skills. It was delivered to a room full of barristers by a non-lawyer, ex-teacher and freelance speechwriter, Ben Richards of Aticus.

Lecturing barristers on public speaking should be a tough gig. Richards made it look very easy – and he did so for a compelling 90 minutes without as much as a single note or Powerpoint slide.

I took copious notes. Here is a distillation.

  1. Delivering professional presentations and writing the seminar papers which are typically meant to accompany them are very different beasts. Treat them as such. Plan your paper’s content and its delivery as separate exercises.
  2. Australians often expect oral presentations to be bland at best. It is actually not that difficult to surprise on the upside.
  3. Why should any speaker see and hear his or her very own presentation for the first time simultaneously with the audience? Do at least some practice aloud beforehand. Also, warm up the vocal cords before you actually take the microphone.
  4. The first draft is never good enough. It will always need at least some rewriting and editing.
  5. Speak to the back of the room. There will never be anybody sitting in the front row anyway. Modulate tone and speed. Use vocal variation.
  6. The law is always prosaic. Be generous with the real-world stories and problems which make the legal issues you are discussing interesting.
  7. Also, start with your conclusions – if you keep your audience waiting its concentration might well be spent by the time you get to the end (where you were probably planning to put your conclusions).
  8. The presentation and the paper should not coincide. They are separate forms of communication which should not be fused.
  9. Don’t turn up late, flustered and then open with an apology and/or a plea to the floor for assistance with the operation of the PowerPoint projector.
  10. PowerPoint can only ever be a background visual aid. It is quite useless as a handout. It can be useful for diagrammatic explanations and/or key (and short!) pieces of text. [For a quick PowerPoint refresher see my post Slide into PowerPoint – a novice’s guide]
  11. The traditional 50 or 60-minute presentation format is problematic. It is usually a much better use of everybody’s time to divide the allotted hour evenly between two speakers and a Q & A session at the end.
  12. For the Q & A session be sure to plant some Dorothy Dixer questions – commonly at these events nobody wants to ask the first question but everybody wants to ask the second question.
  13. Doing a one-off presentation is terribly inefficient – wherever possible commoditise your talk. Its (complete or modified) reuse at subsequent events will improve both its efficiency for you as the speaker (through its delivery to more than a single audience) and also its quality as you are able to polish its content and delivery with practice.
  14. Preparation is key. Many brief preparation sessions over the course of weeks will usually be much more productive than a preparation marathon on the eve of your presentation.
  15. Preparation should start with three questions:
    1. Who is your audience?
    2. What is your objective?
    3. What are your key messages?
  16. You can rarely ask your actual audience in advance what they want to hear but you can usually speak to individuals who are potential audience members and/or have attended similar presentations. What do they know? What don’t they know? What more do they want to know? Ask them!
  17. Be realistic. Large books might well have been written on your topic. You (and your audience) have limited time. Don’t pretend that you can or should attempt to cover everything.
  18. Getting the structure right means putting the right ideas in the right sequence. Maybe start by putting the ideas on post-it notes, sticking them on a window and then rearranging them into an order that makes sense to you.
  19. Test the structure of your presentation by looking at its transitions. If the transitions don’t work it’s probably because the structure doesn’t.
  20. Never give a presentation without some ‘real-world’ connections. War stories are good. In their absence hypotheticals will suffice. Humour is good. So is fear-mongering with worst-case scenarios.
  21. Your opening should persuade the ambivalent audience that it should be interested. You can’t do this unless you sound interested yourself.
  22. Planning your opening is obvious (and important). Planning your closing is less obvious but just as important. The presentation that peters out with an apologetic murmur about the lateness of the hour or an abrupt full stop followed by an unexpected “Thank you” as you sit down is finishing on a bum note indeed.
  23. Speaking notes are a parachute – not a script. If you must have notes use keywords and phrases in large (say 30 point) type. Speaking notes which comprise full written sentences are inherently unsuitable to oral presentations. Using your 20-page seminar paper as your own speaking notes is an own goal accordingly..
  24. Audiences typically take away between 2% and 9% of a presentation’s content. Overcooking your content will compound the problem. Highlight the particular gems you want your listeners to retain.
  25. The average adult’s attention span is approximately 6 to 7 minutes. Harness this rather than being defeated by it. A 60-minute presentation on a monolithic topic is frequently doomed to failure from the outset. And yet it might fly if it is effectively broken up into, say, 8 to 10 chunks of approximately 6 minutes each about particular components of that very same substantive topic.
  26. Consider contriving your own interruptions as breaks to punctuate your presentation. Ideally each resulting segment will prompt a renewed attention span from the audience. These breaks in the presentation can be disguised as, for example, brief group discussion exercises or questions from the floor on a segment-by-segment basis.
  27. Each segment of your presentation should :
    1. Contain a statement of the “learning outcome” desired (eg why should we talk about X at all?);
    2. Highlight the substance of X which needs to be conveyed; and
    3. Conclude with a reflection on X by which the point of the exercise is very briefly recapped.
  28. In the Google age presenters who simply deliver publicly available information are wasting their own and their audiences’ time. Unless you are adding your own personal analysis, experiences, war stories, criticism, humour and/or editorials you are giving your audience nothing positive to remember you by. (Indeed, you might be giving them positive reasons to forget you.)
  29. Don’t run over time. It antagonizes audiences, subsequent speakers and the catering staff. Most of all it looks chaotic.

And on that last point Richards concluded – precisely an hour and a half after he told us he was going to speak for 90 minutes.

If only it was simple as people in Richards’ league make it look.

Robert Hughes – a lawyer’s farewell

Celebrated art critic and historian Robert Hughes died this week.

None of the many generous obits I have read have mentioned Hughes’s obscure and incidental career as a legal critic.

Let’s fix that.

In 1999 Hughes nearly died in a car accident near Broome, Western Australia. During his painful recuperation he was charged with driving offences arising out of that accident. He initially contested the charges but ultimately pleaded guilty.

In the interim passengers from the other vehicle offered (on the sly of course) to change their evidence in exchange for payment from Hughes. They were duly charged conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

Hughes, the baby brother of ex-federal attorney general “Frosty Tom” Hughes QC, was scathing about the whole episode. Among those he took a swipe at was the barrister who prosecuted him, Indian-born, Western Australian barrister Lloyd Rayney.

Hughes, among other things, allegedly described Rayney as a “curry muncher.”

Rayney then sued Hughes for defamation (which ultimately settled privately).

Coincidentally Rayney is now back in court again in a personal capacity. He is currently standing trial in Perth charged with the murder of his wife, Supreme Court Registrar Corryn Rayney. (See the WA News account here).

Rayney will be hoping for a better run in his murder trial from WA’s Director of Public Prosecutions than that accorded in another Perth murder trial to Paul Mallard.

Mallard was convicted of murder in 1995. The High Court subsequently overturned the conviction finding the prosecution had overcooked its case by failing to disclose important exculpatory evidence to the defence. (See an account of the High Court decision at Kyle McDonald’s summary crime blog).

Just how overcooked was the prosecution case against Mallard?

Pretty. Just last month (17 years after the event!) the prosecuting counsel copped a plea before WA’s Legal Profession Complaints Committee to unsatisfactory professional conduct and agreed that the maximum applicable fine was appropriate. (The Committee’s decision here was pointed out to me by the doyen of Melbourne’s legal bloggers Stephen Warne).

What would Robert Hughes have made of this?

Maybe we already know.

He once said “Western Australian justice is to ‘justice’ what Western Australian culture is to ‘culture’.”

Farewell Robert Hughes. At least outside WA you will be missed.

Leading evidence from beyond the grave

Your client has a commercial trial which is still months, even years, off. One of his witnesses is gravely ill and might not survive until the trial.

What are your options?

You probably have three:

  • Arrange to have the sick witness’s evidence taken on commission or in a de bene esse examination;
  • Take an affidavit from that witness and tender it at trial in the event that the witness dies in the interim; or
  • Do nothing beyond simply hoping for the best and trusting to the power of modern medicine and/or prayer.

This dilemma was one of several interesting issues which arose in Goddard Elliott v Fritsch [2012] VSC 87 (see my earlier blogs of 29 March 2012 and 2 April 2012 – both below – dealing with other aspects of the same case).

A witness for the defendant had died almost 2 years before the trial began. At trial the defendant sought to tender an affidavit that the witness had sworn only four days before his death, for the purposes of the trial. Justice Bell described the affidavit as having high probative value despite parts of it being “misleading and confusing”.

But was it admissible?

The plaintiff objected. It argued that the affidavit was clearly hearsay and should be excluded as such in accordance with section 59(1) of the Evidence Act 2008. The defendant countered that the exceptions to the hearsay rule in s 63 of the Evidence Act applied in the circumstances.

Bell J resolved the argument by looking to the court’s general discretion under s 135 of the Evidence Act to exclude evidence. He concluded that while the affidavit was prejudicial to the plaintiff’s case it was not unfairly prejudicial.

“I am not satisfied that the inability of [the plaintiff] to cross-examine [the affidavit’s deponent] will result in unfair prejudice such that the probative value of [the dead man’s] evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of the evidence being unfairly prejudicial to that party. However, [the] affidavit must be given less weight because [the deponent] was not able to be cross-examined.”