Barrister avoids jail time following defamation threats
A barrister has narrowly avoided prison time on contempt charges, including sending legal threats to Lawyers Weekly.
Michael Kelvyn Rollinson pleaded guilty in the NSW Supreme Court to 13 charges of contempt for breaching an undertaking and two injunctions over seven weeks in June and August 2022.
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Four of the 13 charges related to a “concerns notice” he sent to Lawyers Weekly on behalf of supposed “client”, solicitor Vincent Stanizzo.
The remaining charges concerned legal work Mr Rollinson performed on behalf of Mr Stanizzo and his company, Vinja Holdings.
This included correspondence on behalf of Mr Stanizzo’s application for special leave to appeal in the High Court.
At the time the legal threats were made, which included demands for financial compensation, Mr Rollinson was restricted from engaging in legal practice or advertising himself as entitled to do so.
Justice Anthony Payne found his misconduct was partly a result of Mr Stanizzo’s allegedly poor treatment of Mr Rollinson.
“The offending conduct was strikingly misguided, involving as it did completely misconceived assertions to court officials, a trustee in bankruptcy and a legal publisher.
“I find that the conduct is explained by Mr Rollinson’s deteriorating mental condition and the impact of Mr Stanizzo’s taking advantage of Mr Rollinson’s vulnerability,” Justice Payne determined.
In one email subject to a charge, Mr Rollinson threatened Lawyers Weekly with an attached statement of claim, “which Mr Stanizzo intends to file” if he did not receive a retraction and compensation.
In another email sent to counsel Bruce McClintock SC, Mr Rollinson asked for an “informal second opinion” on his “former client’s” prospects of success in a defamation case against Lawyers Weekly.
Mr McClintock first declined to give advice but soon followed up with a second email voicing his concern that while he knew Mr Rollinson did not hold a practising certificate, the email requesting advice “suggests that you may be, nevertheless, practising as a barrister”.
Mr McClintock added he felt “compelled” to pass the correspondence onto the NSW Bar Association “so it may be investigated”.
Evidence submitted to the court suggested Mr Rollinson was vulnerable to “manipulation and pressure” from Mr Stanizzo.
An affidavit from a clerk who worked at Mr Rollinson’s chambers between 2001 and 2021 alleged Mr Stanizzo would demand “more and more of Michael’s time” and would ring him many times a day.
The clerk said she could “hear [Mr Stanizzo] abuse Michael”.
Justice Payne said that while he would have “no hesitation” in imposing a full-time imprisonment sentence on a barrister found to have re-offended, there were “exceptional circumstances” in this case.
This included the evidence of Mr Stanizzo being a “bully who took advantage of Mr Rollinson’s vulnerability” and the “oppressive impact” of Mr Stanizzo’s conduct on Mr Rollinson’s mental condition.
Justice Payne said as Mr Rollinson is in his early 60s and “increasingly frail”, he would be “acutely vulnerable in custody”.
The proceedings have been remanded to 13 November 2024 on the condition Mr Rollinson enter an agreement to comply with conditions, including to be of good behaviour and to accept no contact or to initiate any contact with Mr Stanizzo.