A “MEDIA gag” rule proposed by the Law Council of Australia (LCA) as part of the Model Conduct Rules is effectively dead and buried after it was rejected by the Queensland Law Society (QLS).
The proposed rule 19.1 seeks to impose substantial restrictions on what practitioners can say to the media about matters they are involved in, and has been the subject of extensive media criticism since it emerged that the Queensland Law Society was considering whether to adopt it as part of the Legal Profession (Solicitors) Rules 2007.
The QLS decided against adopting the rule in its entirety and instead opted for the watered-down version already in operation in Victoria, which is essentially nothing more than a reminder to solicitors to avoid being in contempt of court. The Queensland Rules came into operation on 1 July, following a determination by the QLS Council on 21 June.
“There are two important things for practicing solicitors that they need to keep in the forefront of their minds. One is that by their oath they are officers of the court and have to be always mindful of the administration of justice which is covered by things like contempt, and the other of course is their duty to their client. The rule in effect reminds solicitors of those two important obligations. It doesn’t change anything,” said Russell Grenning, principal advisor of corporate relations at the QLS.
Yet during the consultation period, the QLS found itself in the media’s firing line after calling for submissions from members on the LCA rule. The Courier-Mail embarked on a campaign to prevent what it claimed was “state government plans to muzzle lawyers”. QLS president Joe Pinder described the campaign as “a beat-up” and in a letter he sent to the Courier-Mail that the newspaper declined to publish he said:
“To suggest that the professional association for Queensland solicitors, the Queensland Law Society, would somehow conspire with the Attorney-General to hatch some so-called ‘insidious plan’ to gag our own members insults both.”
He went on to say: “We are not in the business of having to ‘defend’ — as you seem to think we are — a draft national model rule prepared by the Law Council of Australia but, rather, we are obliged to put it out for submission and comment as we have done.”
Meanwhile, the Australian Financial Review and The Australian reported that general counsels for the National Australia Bank, Telstra and Tabcorp had sent a letter to the QLS criticising the LCA rule with The Australian suggesting that this letter was perhaps responsible for the QLS decision to reject the rule.
However, Grenning denies that the letter had any impact.
“The council considered this matter on the 21 June when it came up with the decision it did. That letter referred to didn’t arrive here until the 25th, so because of the timing it had no impact,” he said.
The furore may have died down but now that Queensland and Victoria have rejected the LCA’s version of the rule and NSW has rejected it entirely, it’s likely the LCA will have to abandon the contentious rule but plans to hold a “review” of the model laws first.
The LCA was unavailable for comment as Lawyers Weekly went to press.