THREE partners at a Melbourne law firm, including one managing partner, have been found guilty of professional misconduct. The trio have been suspended from practice after mishandling more than $300,000.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) ordered the nine-month suspension of the practising certificates of Michael Russell Coldham, Donald Ernest Brookes and Philip Nunn Barton from Anderson Rice Lawyers, for failing to present over $300,000 worth of cheques to third party providers, following charges brought against them by the Legal Services Commissioner.
The lawyers failed to present 216 cheques between 2004 and 2007, for money owed to barristers and expert witnesses.
The lawyers deliberately withheld the cheques in order to reduce the level of debt in their law practice’s overdraft account, the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner said.
This conduct was uncovered during a routine trust account inspection conducted by the Legal Services Board’s delegate, the Law Institute of Victoria, in June 2007. The LIV referred the matter to the LSC, which then commenced an own motion investigation into the practices of the three lawyers.
Following their investigation, the LSC brought three charges for professional misconduct at common law against the three lawyers, all of whom pleaded guilty to the charges.
Victorian Legal Services Commissioner, Michael McGarvie, said the decision should serve as a reminder to the legal profession about the importance of acting with honesty and integrity in all dealings with the community and members of the legal profession.
“It is disgraceful that these lawyers knowingly and willingly withheld payments from fellow members of the profession and professionals from other industries for their own financial convenience,” he said.
“This is a case where the practitioners tried to arrange their financial affairs through dishonest behaviour and were found out by the legal regulators. The legal regulators have rigorous auditing programs in place for identifying this type of activity. Lawyers should therefore think twice before engaging in this type of conduct.”
“Lawyers who are experiencing financial difficulty should seek the assistance of the professional associations or financial support services immediately. The legal regulator and the courts will not forgive financial misconduct,” said McGarvie.
VCAT accepted the LSC’s submission that if the practice had not been detected, it would have continued indefinitely. Further, VCAT said that the lawyers “engaged in disgraceful and dishonourable conduct upon their own admission” and that this case should “send an unmistakable message to the State’s legal profession that this sort of conduct will not be tolerated”.
VCAT also ordered that the lawyers pay the LSC’s costs of $50,000.