OUTSPOKEN QC Peter Faris has resigned from the Victorian Bar amidst an investigation into comments he made alleging drug use was rife among barristers.
Faris is under investigation by the Victorian Bar’s Ethics Committee for alleging in May that there was a drug use problem in the legal profession at the time of the drug-related death of prominent barrister Peter Hayes QC.
Faris believes the investigation by the Ethics Committee is an attempt to punish him for being critical of the Bar.
“I think they were insulted by what I said. But of course with freedom of speech it isn’t just nice speech that’s protected — it’s speech that you don’t like which is protected, otherwise it doesn’t work.
“So I think they were insulted and their motives [for the investigation] are the wrong motives. I think it’s got nothing to do with bringing the profession into disrepute but with punishing me for what I said,” Faris said.
Following the death of Hayes, Faris — who has a high media profile and has also enjoyed a career as a radio broadcaster — told various media outlets, including Lawyers Weekly, that he had come across anecdotal evidence of a drug abuse problem within the legal profession.
“I had said to the media in the first place back in May that I have anecdotal evidence and this is my opinion and I express my opinion as I’m entitled to do. So I said I have anecdotal evidence and [the Ethics Committee] said ‘aha — because you don’t have evidence you’ve made statements without evidence that has brought the profession into disrepute’,” Faris said.
The chairwoman of the Ethics Committee Jennifer Davies said she was unable to comment on the investigation due to confidentiality requirements under the Legal Profession Act.
However, Victorian Bar Council chairman, Peter Riordan, said Faris’s claims that this is an issue concerning freedom of speech are incorrect and that it is in fact more a question of whether the Legal Profession Act has been breached.
“His freedom to speak is always subject to statutory restrictions — namely in other instances, freedom of speech is subject to the laws of defamation. So it’s not a freedom of speech issue — the question is did he breach the Legal Profession Act?,” Riordan said.
According to Riordan, there is no evidence drugs are rife in the legal profession as Faris claimed, nor is there evidence drug use is more prevalent than in any other profession.
“In terms of the Bar we don’t deny that there would be some usage of drugs within the legal profession and within the Bar. What we say is we don’t have any reason to believe that it would be more prevalent than in any other profession or in the wider community,” he said.
However, Faris said whether or not the legal profession is worse than any other profession is irrelevant.
“Riordan said the other day they are unaware of any evidence that suggests that a problem with the use of drugs by barristers is greater or more prevalent than in other professions across the community. It seems to me that that is a concession there is a problem. So now the issue is the extent of the problem and how do you find out if you don’t do something about it, if you haven’t asked. So it now seems when I said there was a problem that I was right. All we are arguing about is the extent of it and they don’t know the extent of it,” Faris said.
Despite Riordan’s claims that there is no evidence drug use is worse at the Bar than anywhere else in society, research carried earlier this year by Beaton Consulting in conjunction with depression initiative beyondblue found that around 15 per cent of lawyers were depressed and that almost 5 per cent self-medicated using non-prescription drugs and alcohol — more than in any other profession surveyed.
Clare Shann, project manager at beyondblue said the results showed lawyers were susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse to cope with the pressures they faced.
“From the research there were several key findings and amongst them was that respondents from the legal profession compared to any other professional service group had the highest rates of moderate to severe depressive symptoms. And we also found that approximately one-third of respondents used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate and the legal profession had the highest percentage,” Shann said.
Faris said the Victorian Bar has its head in the sand, and points out that in NSW the Legal Services Commissioner, Steve Mark, recently published an article considering ways of dealing with substance abuse and mental illness in the profession.
“It isn’t good enough to sit there and say “we are no worse than other professions”. Other professions are doing something about it but these people are not,” Faris said.
This is the second time Farris has resigned from the Bar. He resigned in 1994 for five years when he wanted to rent chambers at commercial rates rather than more expensive chambers at the Bar’s insistence.
He intends to apply for a practising certificate from the Law Institute of Victoria and continue to act as an independent barrister.