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Client care information is to protect consumers

G was a lawyer who acted for Ms J, in respect of her relationship property claim against her former partner. Ms J complained about G’s competence, manner, invoicing, charges, and responses to requests for information. She claimed G had not provided a client care letter. A lawyers standards committee upheld only the last of these complaints.

Ms J first instructed G in 2012. Ms J said she was initially under the impression that G was providing her with services as a legal aid lawyer. She claimed he had indicated he would charge only legal aid rates, and would not charge a fee until settlement had been reached.

Ms J claimed that G did not provide her with terms of engagement and client care information. She also claimed that he had overcharged.

When she changed to another lawyer she requested fee information from G, and she claimed his response was also a breach of his obligations to her.

She said that G had acted incompetently, including getting details wrong, and in effect requiring her to supervise each step he took. Finally she claimed that G had intimidated her, making unprofessional remarks both to her and her support persons, and in failing to act with courtesy and respect.

In respect of the first claim, that G had failed to provide terms of engagement and client care information, the committee considered whether Rules 3.4 and 3.5 of the Rules of Conduct and Client Care had been breached.

G advised the committee that though he had not provided any formal correspondence, he had supplied fee information to Ms J. He indicated that he believed that no obligation on him had arisen at any particular time to provide a formal letter. He said that he had provided the important information informally, and so Ms J was not disadvantaged.

The committee disagreed with G’s contentions that he had done enough. The committee noted that the obligations in the Rules are clear, and that G had failed to discharge them.

The purpose of providing client care information is to protect consumers. Further, in this case the failure to do so had caused confusion to develop. Accordingly the committee found that there had been unsatisfactory conduct on G’s part in respect of this part of the complaint.

However the committee did not uphold Ms J’s other complaints.

The committee found that G had not overcharged, bearing in mind the time spent and the relevant parts of Rule 9. G had rendered an invoice which was (just) below the jurisdictional threshold of $2,000 inclusive of GST in Regulation 29 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Complaints Service and Standards Committee) Regulations 2008.

The committee could still have considered the bill if it considered there were special circumstances to justify doing so, but it did not consider such circumstances were present in this case.

Ms J alleged G had not acted competently. The standards committee noted that while G had made some mistakes, he had not acted incompetently or negligently. The committee said, “a ‘reasonably competent lawyer’ does not mean a lawyer who never makes mistakes. Reasonable competence does not mean perfection.”

With respect to complaints about not providing information to Ms J’s new lawyer, the committee found that G’s actions did not breach any professional standards or any of the Rules.

With regard to the allegations of unprofessional conduct, and failing to act with courtesy and respect, the committee acknowledged that Mr G’s actions may have been misguided and/or misinterpreted.

G was alleged to have told one of Ms J’s support persons to “shut up”, which he denied. The committee noted that some comments about contemplated suicide appeared to have been unwise. Ms J claimed she felt unsafe with G, and as a result took to bringing a support person with her to meetings with him.

However the committee said that, viewed objectively and bearing in mind G’s obviously genuine concern for Ms J in her relationship property situation, it did not consider the comments to be so offensive as to justify a finding of unsatisfactory conduct. The committee noted that some comments may have been unfortunate and caused offence.

In relation to the finding of unsatisfactory conduct, the committee fined G $1,000 and ordered him to pay $500 costs. No further action was taken in respect of the other complaints.

Last updated on the 3rd June 2015