Veteran Perth lawyer suspended after finding of “calculated” misconduct
The sole principal lawyer of one of Western Australia’s oldest firms has had an interim order for suspension made against him and faces a penalty of being struck off, after a tribunal determined he had engaged in grave misleading conduct.
Ronald (Ron) William Bower had misconduct proceedings brought against him by the Legal Profession Complaints Committee last year.
The sole principal of Corser & Corser, a Perth law firm that traced its history back to the 1920s and claimed on its website to be one of the oldest legal practices in WA, was accused by the committee of consistent and substantial professional misconduct that involved “calculated omissions” in correspondence with clients. Evidence was also presented to show that he failed to take reasonable steps to ensure client proceedings were progressed without undue delay.
An application for disciplinary action against the veteran lawyer was made on six grounds, with Mr Bower accused of being responsible for delays to properly execute matters according to court timetables and then recklessly and willfully misleading clients of the firm to conceal those delays and the associated costs attached to them. He was also accused of misleading the court by filing false information contained in an affidavit.
In a decision made in March, a three-member panel of the Western Australia State Administrative Tribunal found Mr Bower did not meet the requirements of a fit and proper person to be a lawyer.
The tribunal admonished his lack of “integrity and honesty”, characteristics it said were essential for a legal practitioner, and deemed him “permanently unfit to practise”.
“Fitness to practise law requires Mr Bower to command the personal confidence of his or her clients, fellow practitioners and judges. Mr Bower’s conduct shows that he cannot command that confidence,” the decision read.
“The tribunal [will] recommend to a full bench of the Supreme Court of Western Australia that his name be removed from the roll of practitioners.”
The allegations against Mr Bower related mainly to two client matters that he handled between 2010 and 2011. One of the matters involved an employment law dispute for unfair dismissal and the other was a dispute over a construction contract.
At various stages in both matters, the proceedings lapsed and had been subsequently added to the inactive cases list.
The tribunal noted that the poor handling of the matters in question, which included a more junior solicitor of the firm, “factually intertwined” the disputes. The decision went on to say that the misconduct related partially to Mr Bower’s knowledge of those proceedings becoming inactive and also the performance of Kerry Savas, a former associate at the firm.
In this context, the tribunal maintained that “on any view, Mr Bower was responsible for substantial delays in [both matters] before Mr Savas had the day-to-day carriage of the matters”.
In the employment dispute, Mr Bower was found to have allowed the matter to run past the set court date for the filing statements of claim and later amended versions, and was also responsible for occasions where there was no legal representative present for a directions hearing.
Furthermore the client, Mahendra Pal, sent a number of emails to the firm to establish the status of his case with no reply. During a period when Mr Bower went on leave, the client’s emails were left unanswered for over two months.
Little did Mr Pal know that an order for costs had already been made against him on account of his lawyers failing to appear at a directions hearing. This enacted a process to get Mr Pal’s matter taken off the inactive cases list and the firm would later, improperly, go on to charge the client for this work.
When Mr Pal did finally receive a response, the firm’s reply led him to believe that there had been no hold-up in his matter.
The tribunal reviewed a number of emails and found that Mr Bower had misled the client about the true progress of his matter several times.
The panel also determined that the lawyer had provided false information to Mr Pal, including “calculated omissions” and statements that were “blatantly untrue” to mislead the client as to the procedural status of his file over a long period.
Remarking on one of many emails sent to Mr Pal, the judgment said: “The 22 August email failed to disclose to Mr Pal the significant delays in the proceedings and that those delays had been caused by Corser & Corser breaching orders. In addition, there were positive misrepresentations."
“Mr Bower intended to mislead Mr Pal as to the lack of progress on the matter,” the judgment later read.
More pointedly, the panel said that Mr Bower had lied with respect to his responsibility in the delays and also his claim that lawyers of the other side in the matter were to blame for the delays. During cross-examination the lawyer told the tribunal that lawyers of the other side were “pretty feisty” and that “if deadlines weren’t met, then it may have been because there had been quite vigorous interactions between the parties”.
Barrister Patricia Cahill SC challenged Mr Bower’s assertion during cross-examination, and he finally conceded that he had no basis for making that claim.
The tribunal found that his claims against lawyers from Lawton Gillon were “deliberately untrue” and made to divert attention from his own failures and delays.
“When asked by the tribunal to give an example of the difficulties he was experiencing with Lawton Gillon, Mr Bower gave a convoluted and rambling response. He was unable to explain how Mr Savas could have been persuaded by Lawton Gillon to ‘slow down’ in the face of Mr Pal’s instructions to proceed.”
“Mr Bower refused to accept that it was he and Mr Savas who were the main cause of the delay. This is inconsistent with his concessions that ‘the Pal matter was now grossly delayed by Mr Savas’ conduct and his failure to address those delays himself’. It is rather difficult to maintain a consistent story when not telling the truth,” the tribunal said.
The tribunal also found that the serious claims against Mr Bower were exacerbated by lack of credibility as a witness during cross-examination.
Mr Bower’s oral evidence had been so evasive, the tribunal said that if not for the expertise of counsel acting for the applicant, it would have been difficult to have “wrung out” important concessions from the disgraced lawyer.
“Mr Bower was an entirely unsatisfactory witness. He made assertions without any factual basis. He was evasive. In the majority of cases, the concessions made by him were made only after persistent questioning by Patricia Cahill SC,” the tribunal said.
“A less experienced counsel than Ms Cahill would probably not have wrung the concessions out of Mr Bower. His demeanour reflected a high level of uneasiness in answering questions.”
Other evidence presented to the tribunal, including correspondence with clients, lawyers for the other side and between the solicitors of Corser & Corser, established a scenario more troubling than missed court deadlines.
Specifically, the evidence showed the error of Mr Bower’s relaxed approach to management and poor supervision of junior personnel at the firm.
Mr Bower gave oral evidence to the tribunal that he employed a form of “management by walking around”, where he “informed himself” and “checked on” staff working in “close physical proximity” to understand how things were going.
The office also worked from one central computerised diary, which Mr Bower explained allowed him to be across important dates and the progress of matters handled by the firm.
This system did not do enough to ensure that staff and matters were being properly managed by Mr Bower as the principal of the firm, the tribunal found.
On review of the available evidence, the tribunal also suggested that this system failed to safeguard a process where written records or minutes would be made for files when needed.
The Western Australia State Administrative Tribunal considered Mr Bower’s misconduct so serious that it recommended he not be allowed to resume practice after a period of any suspension.
Mr Bower was admitted to the WA legal profession in 1983, meaning that at the time of the alleged misconduct, he had been a pracitising lawyer for over 27 years.
According to LinkedIn Mr Bower graduated from the University of Western Australia in 1982 and worked at Corser & Corser since 1984, where he ultimately took on the role of director and sole principal.
Mr Bower is no longer listed among the firm’s lawyers on its website and a different practitioner is believed to be the new managing director of Corser & Corser.
The tribunal also ordered that Mr Bower pay the committee’s costs for the disciplinary action to the tune of $46,325.10.