5 February 2008

Poor performing Queensland lawyers are usually fined for abusing trust accounts and their legal service quality, according to a review of the state’s legal disciplinary matters.

The review of 83 cases heard between 2001-2005, found that quality of service and negligence charges had increased to 36 percent of cases compared to 10 percent in the previous decade.

The most common charges related to abuse of trust accounts, quality of service, misleading counsel, compliance problems, conflict of interest and costs.

About 39 percent of the lawyers who faced a disciplinary hearing in Queensland between 2001-2005 had their names removed from the Supreme Court roll of lawyers, compared to an average historic rate of about 31 percent.

Fines remained a common penalty for lawyers although less common in 2001-2005 with 37 percent of penalties, compared to 47 percent for 1996-2000.

The review was compiled by Dr Linda Haller, a UQ Law graduate now senior law lecturer at the University of Melbourne and Dr Heather Green from Griffith University.

Dr Haller said few complaints ever reached disciplinary hearings but the recent research of herself and Dr Green showed the Legal Services Commissioner was more transparent and willing to prosecute on service quality compared to when the Queensland Law Society prosecuted matters.

In most disciplinary hearings held in South East Queensland, the average solicitor was 42 years old with 15 years’ experience.

Dr Haller had previously researched the history of disciplinary proceedings for all Queensland lawyers from 1859-2000, for her UQ PhD.

She said disciplinary “scaffolding” gave an historic impression of much disciplinary action for lawyers, which in reality, lacked substance.

“Despite the legislation being amended in 1997 to allow for discipline for incompetence, neglect and overcharging, lawyers in Queensland continued to be most likely to face discipline when their conduct was considered disgraceful or dishonourable by fellow layers,” Dr Haller said.

“The rhetoric of decision makers — including judges — could not always be reconciled with their action.

“There’s been a lot of regulation of lawyers but whether it’s been efficiently used is another thing.”

She said barristers and solicitors were disciplined differently, with barristers largely regulated ‘in-house’ by the Bar Association of Queensland until the passing of the Legal Profession Act in 2004.

Dr Haller, who received the Dean’s Commendation for her PhD through UQ’s TC Beirne School of Law, has started a similar analysis of professional discipline for lawyers in Victoria.

Dr Francesca Bartlett, also from the UQ law school, is drawing on Dr Haller’s work in her examination of the rate of complaints and discipline against female lawyers, which has been lower then men.

MEDIA: Dr Haller (0402 347 771, 03 8344 1107) or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (07 3365 2619)