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.

A Christmas present buried deep in the Civil Procedure Rules?

Christmas prezzies sorted? Self-executing orders complied with? Default judgment averted? Holiday booked?

Maybe some of your Christmas deadlines are less pressing than they appear.

Civil litigators should remember at this time of year that the Civil Procedure Rules allow them a bonus 16 days over the Christmas / New Year break to comply with most orders and Court rules containing time limits.

In each of the Supreme, County and Magistrates’ Court rules, time stops running because of Rule 3.04(1). The two alternative formulations of Rule 3.04(1) have identical effect. The Supreme and County Court version provides:

In calculating time fixed by these Rules or by any order fixing, extending or abridging time, the period from 24 December to 9 January next following shall be excluded, unless the Court otherwise orders.

An example. A defendant who files an appearance today (Friday, 11 December 2015) would normally as a consequence be required (by Rule 14.02) to serve a defence within 30 days thereafter (ie by Monday, 11 January 2016). But at this time of year that 30 days actually expires in 46 days’ time on Wednesday, 27 January 2016 after allowance is made for the end-of-year suspension of time under Rule 3.04(1) and also the Australia Day holiday on 26 January 2016. (See Rule 3.01(5) as to the effect of public holidays and other days when the courts’ offices are closed).

The Federal Court is even more generous. Its equivalent is Rule 1.61(5) which provides:

If the time fixed by [these Rules or by an order of the Court] includes a day in the period starting on 24 December in a year and ending on 14 January in the next year, the day is not to be counted.

That was that good news. Now the bad news.

Time pauses for some litigation purposes over the break but not for others.

In Kuek v Victoria Legal Aid [1999] VSC 158 the plaintiff sought to rely upon Rule 3.04(1) to commence an appeal which was otherwise out of time under the Magistrates’ Court Act. He failed. Beach J held that Rule 3.04(1) as a rule of Court could not have the effect of extending a statutory deadline unless the statute concerned (or some other) gave the Court express power to vary that deadline.

So if you have a statutory demand or a potential appeal quietly ticking away on your desk as Christmas approaches, Rule 3.04(1) offers no yuletide peace and goodwill.

But if you have no such time bombs on your desk – Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, a Splendid Silly Season and a very happy new year to you.

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.

Mitigation, GST and intersections; should defendants pay plaintiffs’ claims on a GST-inclusive or exclusive basis?

Mr Millington drove through a red light and hit a garbage truck. His insurer admitted as much.  It also accepted liability entirely. And it admitted that the garbage truck’s owner had incurred repair costs and associated losses of almost $50,000. But it baulked at paying that amount in damages.

So the garbo sued.

Millington’s insurer defended. It argued that the garbo’s claim was based on GST-inclusive amounts such as the total of the repairer’s invoice. As a business, the insurer reasoned, the garbage collector should inevitably get a GST input credit for one eleventh of such GST-inclusive totals and hence the true ultimate cost to the garbo was only ten-elevenths (i.e. the GST-exclusive amount) of the amounts that the garbo was claiming in court.

The plaintiff garbo dug in. It answered that while it was entitled to a GST input credit for the GST in the repair bill etc, it did not intend actually claiming that credit. And besides, even if it was to claim the GST input credit, why should it be out-of-pocket for the period between paying the GST-inclusive repair bills etc and the taxman’s subsequent allowance of the input credit from those bills?

The Supreme Court and the Magistrates’ Court gave different answers.

At first instance, the Magistrates’ Court ordered the defendant to pay the plaintiff the GST-inclusive total claim but it also ordered that the plaintiff subsequently refund to the defendant an amount equal to the GST content of the claim.

The defendant (or rather Mr Millington’s insurer in his name) then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The decision was handed down last month in Millington v Waste Wise Environmental Pty Ltd [2015] VSC 167.  Ironically, by the time the appeal got to the Supreme Court, the parties had actually agreed that the appeal should succeed but Croft J. applied the brakes. He observed that superior courts could not simply overturn inferior court orders by consent of the parties so he required submissions from the parties and allowed the involvement of an amicus curiae.

The appeal had three grounds.

Firstly, the Millington camp contended that the magistrate’s orders for separate payments in opposite directions offended the “once and for all” rule for damages awards. Croft J. agreed (although he noted a certain elasticity in that rule at the conclusion of a review of authorities which he characterised as tending to muddy already opaque waters).

Secondly, the appellant argued that the magistrate’s orders offended the compensatory principle (i.e. the object of an award of damages is to provide a sum of money the effect of which is to place the party who was injured in the same position they would have been in if they had not sustained the wrong for which they are being compensated). Again Croft J. agreed (although in obiter he noted the possibility that interest on a GST input might be properly claimable for the period the plaintiff was out of pocket for that amount).

Finally, the appellant argued that the magistrate was wrong when he adopted the view that the plaintiff was under a positive duty to mitigate its loss. Once more Croft J. agreed. “No such positive duty [to mitigate loss] exists,” he said. However “… the correct application of the law relating to the mitigation of loss in this instance requires that that the award of damages be reduced to the extent that [the plaintiff] has not acted reasonably in claiming the input credits to which it was entitled.”

The lessons from this case? Three occur to me:

  • The financial measure of a defendant’s liability will often vary (plus or minus approximately 10 per cent) depending on the GST status of the particular plaintiff;
  • The “duty to mitigate loss” might be a technical mis-description but that is probably of little practical significance. The broad underlying concept that plaintiffs cannot recover damages for losses they have incurred unreasonably remains alive and well; and
  • If even garbage trucks need to be careful when approaching green lights at intersections the rest of us need to be very cautious indeed.

(Thanks to my friend and colleague Sam Hopper for pointing this case out to me after noticing that one of the authorities cited in it was the matter in which we first met.)

Victorian Supreme Court costs – the party/party is over

No April Fool’s Day jokes please.

Effective 1 April 2013 the Victorian Supreme Court has a new costs regime.

The highlights:

  • The ‘party and party basis’ (by which most Supreme Court cost bills have historically been taxed) is axed.
  • Henceforth, costs orders will generally be taxed on the more generous ‘solicitor and client basis’ (that is “all costs reasonably incurred and of reasonable amount”) although that yardstick is to be renamed the ‘standard basis.’
  • Costs on an indemnity basis remain available.
  • Solicitors’ time on the standard basis will be claimable in 6 minute units at the rate of $36 + GST per unit (ie $360 + GST per hour).
  • Unless otherwise ordered, the maximum daily allowance for counsel is $5000 + GST per day for juniors and $7500 + GST per day for silks.
  • Photocopying (currently allowable at a whopping $2.30 per page) becomes discretionary but is likely to be allowed in the Costs Court at 22 cents per printed side of page.

For a more detailed explanation of the new costs regime see:

What do the changes mean?

It is probably good news for successful litigants. Any standard costs order in their favour should now translate into more coin in their pocket than was formerly likely under the more austere party and party basis.

It is correspondingly bad news for unsuccessful litigants (by which I include others such as winners who fail to beat their opponents’ Calderbank offers or Offers of Compromise).

And it’s likely business as usual for those practitioners of the dark arts of costs consulting.

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.