A prominent Victorian lawyer known for representing gangland criminals like Mick Gatto has been reprimanded and ordered to pay $27,000 to the Victorian Legal Services Commission after being found guilty of professional misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct over a de-facto relationship matter.
The Victorian Legal Services Commissioner (VLSC) brought four charges against Melbourne principal George Defteros and his practice Defteros Lawyers over his handling of a de-facto relationship matter, which included failing to provide a costs estimate of briefing counsels and invoicing a former client after a retainer had ended.
Between May 2015 and April 2016, Mr Defteros’ firm acted for a woman in de-facto relationship proceedings in circumstances where the firm had previously acted for the woman’s partner in an unrelated matter. This meant that the firm had knowledge about the partner’s personal circumstances and had at one stage held files.
The new solicitors for the partner wrote to Mr Defteros on a number of occasions requesting that he cease acting for the woman. Those requests were refused until, ultimately, the Federal Circuit Court made an order prohibiting him from acting for the woman and requested that he hand over all files relating to the partner.
The files were part of charge one, with VLSC alleging that he had failed to hand over relevant documents for six months. In the beginning, the firm held onto the files because the partner had not paid his bills, as was its right. However, once the bills were paid, the firm failed to hand over the files despite several follow-up requests.
The delivery of the files eventually took place the day before the Federal Circuit Court made its order. On this first charge, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) found Mr Defteros guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct and ordered that he be reprimanded and pay a fine of $1,000 to VLSC.
“It is noted that the actual conduct was that of the employee solicitor, although as principal, Mr Defteros bore responsibility for it,” VCAT noted in its judgement. “Further, it is not alleged that there was any particular forensic advantage achieved in the litigation by the delay in handing over the files to the partner.”
The second charge related to correspondence from Mr Defteros’ solicitors to VLSC alleging that his involvement in the de-facto relationship matter was limited to two instances. However, it was later discovered that he was involved on 11 occasions that included supervising and discussing the matter with his employee, conferring with the woman himself about her matter and speaking with the partner’s solicitors.
It was agreed that while the “false and misleading statement” to VLSC was reckless, it was not intentional. VCAT noted that Mr Defteros set out the extent of his involvement from memory, without reviewing the file, so the memory was inaccurate.
“Notwithstanding that it was reckless rather than deliberate, this was a significant departure from the standard of conduct expected of a solicitor, especially one with the substantial experience which Mr Defteros had,” VCAT wrote, adding that he would be reprimanded and fined $5,000 on this charge.
Relating to the third charge, the firm provided costs disclosures to the woman in June, July and September 2015 that totalled $81,900 plus GST and disbursements. During the retainer, counsel was briefed and seven invoices were received by the firm. However, these disclosures were not provided to the woman.
VCAT said it was “most unsatisfactory” for a client not to receive the formal written disclosures of the counsel’s fees estimated to be incurred. Mr Defteros was found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
“There is frequently a power and information balance between clients and their legal representatives. An estimate of the amount of fees likely to be incurred is a vital component of the information a client needs to make strategic decisions and give informed introductions in the conduct of litigation,” VCAT wrote.
The fourth charge concerned four invoices totalling $5,054.80 sent to the woman after the retainer had ended. Relevantly, some of the costs related to an appeal by the practice on its own behalf and not on behalf of the woman, attempts to contact her via Skype and work undertaken for the purpose of preparing an invoice.
The rest of the invoices were made up of communications with VLSC with respect to a complaint lodged by the practice and not on behalf of the woman, and related to communications regarding the handover of the wife’s files to her new lawyer. These latter two were all done by Mr Defteros personally.
The judgement can be read in full on AustLII and JADE: Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v Defteros (Legal Practice)  VCAT 906 (12 August 2021).