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New lawyer admitted amid Centrelink overpayments, criminal charges

The Northern Territory Law Society has failed to prevent a new lawyer from being admitted after she disclosed Centrelink overpayments and two assault charges. 

user iconNaomi Neilson 30 April 2021 Big Law
New lawyer admitted amid Centrelink overpayments
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The Legal Profession Admission Board referred a new NT lawyer to the Supreme Court after she disclosed Centrelink overpayments totalling $10,000 and two assault charges in 2007 and 2017 across four separate affidavits. 

The board considered that she had not been “fully candid” in her initial affidavit relating to the criminal charges and, more specifically, it was concerned that her explanation of one of the overpayments lacked credibility and the explanation of a second overpayment was inconsistent with Centrelink records. 

“The candour of the applicant in the disclosure process is important not only to ensure that all relevant material is before the court, but also to demonstrate that the applicant has a proper perception of her ethical obligations and is a fit and proper person to practice as a lawyer,” the Supreme Court judgement set out. 

 
 

The Law Society did not suggest that the applicant’s criminal matters themselves prevented her from being a fit and proper person for admission but was concerned about her disclosure. It submitted that her description of the assault of her father in the first affidavit had “differed significantly” from the account in the court brief. A third affidavit differed only slightly but still prompted the Law Society to refer it to the court. 

The Law Society also drew the court’s attention to the applicant’s failure to disclose, until recently, that she was charged with an aggravated assault in 2007. This first assault against a former partner was pursued for two years and dropped in 2009. She was also not convicted of “serious assault person over 60” and instead received a community work order of 50 hours and to be supervised by a correctional officer. 

In the fourth affidavit, the applicant stated that the details she provided about the second offence were based on her memory only and that she had trouble recalling the incident “because it was incredibly difficult and traumatic time in her life”. 

“Ultimately, I characterise the applicant’s failure to fully disclose the facts of the offending as erroneous but understandable errors of judgement. It was not a reckless laxity of attention to necessary principles of honesty,” the court found. 

Further, the court found that the board’s concerns that the applicant had not been honest with Centrelink officers and had failed in her obligation of candour are not borne by the evidence before the court. The “potentially misleading statements” contained in her disclosures are properly characterised as “erroneous but understandable” errors of judgement rather than a deliberate lack of candour. 

“On balance, the applicant’s failures to have unearthed the relevant facts from the mass of records, and her mistaken reliance on her memory as a consequence, comprise erroneous but understandable errors of judgement. They do not provide any sufficient basis for a finding that the applicant was dishonest, disingenuous or set out to mislead in her disclosures,” the Supreme Court concluded.