TENSIONS between the Queensland Law Society (QLS) and its State Attorney-General, Rod Welford, boiled over last week, with the Government biting back at lawyers’ claims they were under-consulted prior to the finalisation of drastic reforms to regulation of the profession.
As revealed by Lawyers Weekly, plans to exclude the QLS from prosecuting complaints it is called upon to investigate at the behest of an independent Legal Services Commissioner (LSC) have angered the guild. Elaborating on remarks made earlier this month in response to the release of the Legal Profession Bill — the Government’s first tranch of reform — QLS president Glenn Ferguson last week told a regional conference of his disenchantment with Welford’s decision not to open the legislation’s consultation phase to all lawyers.
“Suffice it to say, that it was personally very disappointing to me that I was constrained by a confidentiality agreement with [Welford] and could not open the consultation phase to all members,” he said in an address to the Yeppoon-based Central Queensland Law Association.
Upon catching wind of Ferguson’s comments, the A-G’s department responded strongly by claiming that the legal profession “has been consulted to death for the past eight years” over reforms.
“White and Green papers were widely distributed over many years,” a spokes- person said.
The Government also baulked at any possible threats from the QLS to withdraw itself — and hence its newly beefed-up investigation squad — from accepting discipline briefs from the LSC. Ferguson last week called upon members to carefully consider what direction the guild should adopt, and has stated the prospect of it reverting to a members-only organisation would be closely examined.
“If we are to investigate, then we should also be able to prosecute,” he said. “We don’t want to have a policing role only. If there’s no room for us to prosecute , then we might as well become a pure member’s organisation with no regulatory function.”
In response, the Government rejected any suggestions that a loss of cooperation from the professional association would be damaging.
“No, we’re not concerned by the comments,” the spokesperson said. “We would welcome the QLS taking a supportive role in the new regime. However, if the Society wants to withdraw from its part in regulation, then that would be a matter for them.”
During last week’s speech, Ferguson went to great lengths to stress to members the compromising position in which the QLS was set to be placed by virtue of the proposed legislation.
“Plainly, this Bill does far more than just establish an external regulator — it imposes on the Society and, by extension, the profession a very strict and detailed administrative and accountability structure,” he said.
Pointing out that activities would be subject to the Crime and Misconduct Commission, Auditor-General, FOI laws and a personal representative of Welford’s on council, Ferguson alleged the QLS will become the nation’s most watched body.
“It is certainly true to say that no other professional body or trade union has such a level of control and I could never in my wildest imaginings think that any government would ever seek to impose any similar structure on any similar body.”
With the QLS to cede control to the Government over millions of dollars worth of funds generated from interest accrued on Solicitors’ Trust Accounts, Ferguson fears that the profession’s “ultimate obligation” — to stand up for personal rights and criticise the state when appropriate — may be jeopardised.
“It is entirely possible that the situation could arise when a future Attorney-General was so angry and upset with the Society because of our criticisms of some Government proposal or activity that he or she could withhold funds and try and starve us into submission,” he said.
But the A-G’s Department was not so confident that the QLS would be afraid to speak out. “We will not hold our breath waiting for the day when the QLS feels it cannot criticise the government of the day,” the spokesperson countered.