Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey AC has condemned the use of billable hours in the legal profession, declaring that timesheets reward inefficiency and encourage dishonesty.
Speaking at the Australian Lawyers' Alliance annual state conference on the Gold Coast today (18February) de Jersey said he has no doubt that time-based billing has led to some overstatement and dishonest claiming in the legal profession.
He said that while instances of timesheet fraud could be explained by the pressures facing legal practitioners today - such as satisfying clients, impressing a partner, judge or magistrate and improving a firm's bottom line -such pressures can not be an excuse for dishonest behaviour.
"My impression is that the most frequent derelictions - delay and failure to communicate, dishonesty, overcharging, and unauthorised dealings with trust monies - often have sprung from those sorts of pressures," he said.
"Modern practices have to tender for some work, and their approach must remain competitive if they are to retain the client. In this landscape, the pressure to gain the client and then 'win' for the client can be immense.
"The consequent temptation for an expedient and even dishonest practitioner may be correspondingly large."
de Jersey questioned why legal practitioners would lapse into dishonest behaviour, given his belief that most people do not enter the legal profession for money.
He pointed to advice offered by senior practitioner Dr John de Groot in explaining three root causes behind why such lapses may occur, including pressure of time and circumstance, the "trying to be helpful" trap and simple expediency.
"As to the pressure of time and circumstance, he [de Groot] instanced the forging of a client's signature on a security, where the client was unavailable and a deadline imminent. Plagiarism falls into that category as well, where there is sometimes not only the pressure of time, but also pressure to compete," said de Jersey.
"As to the 'trying to be helpful' trap, he instanced 'witnessing' a signature which has been applied on another earlier occasion. What may at the time seem a safe expedient may have unforeseen serious consequences.
"As to expedience, there is again the witnessing of a signature where the signatory is not present. Doing it properly may be criticized by a client as pedantic. The client may find it difficult to understand why something apparently merely formal in nature can matter a great deal!"
de Jersey suggested that, given many ethical questions surrounding legal practitioners can be grey in nature, that "discussion with one's peers may aid their solution".