1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd v Power & Ors (no 2) [2015] VSC 735

Civil procedure – non-party costs order against a party’s solicitor – solicitor also a director of client company – conflict of interest – LIV’s Professional Conduct and Practice Rules

In 1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd v Power & Ors (no 2) [2015] VSC 735 a solicitor was ordered to pay indemnity costs after acting as solicitor on the record for a company in which he was personally interested.

The solicitor was (indirectly) one of the main shareholders in 1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd (“Stud Rd”). He was also its company secretary and one of its two directors. He dealt on its behalf in several controversial transactions and also acted as its solicitor in both litigation and conveyancing contexts.

In 2007, Stud Rd bought a block of land in Rowville. The block’s only road access was via an easement. But two years earlier a neighbour had built a Chinese restaurant on that easement.

In 2012, Stud Rd sold its landlocked block for $2.3 million. The section 32 statement neglected to mention the slight issue of the obstructed easement. That sale then fell over before settlement and Stud Rd sued the purchaser and also the owner of the offending restaurant (“Palms”).

Early in the litigation, Palms demanded security for costs from Stud Rd. Stud Rd’s solicitor/company director/company secretary wrote back refusing and saying that Stud Rd had ample equity in the Rowville land and could afford to meet any likely costs order against it. That much was true.

But things changed when Stud Rd subsequently sold the land afresh. The new sale wasn’t disclosed to the other litigants nor was the new contract of sale discovered pursuant to Stud Rd’s continuing discovery obligations. Stud Rd also omitted to mention to the other parties its distribution of the net sale proceeds to various of its own related interests.

As the trial loomed closer, Stud Rd went into voluntary liquidation. The proceeding was discontinued before trial as a consequence. Palms had nevertheless spent over $300,000 preparing for the trial. There being no prospect of recovering those costs from the liquidated company, Palms applied instead for non-party costs orders against Stud Rd’s solicitors and its two directors personally.

Palms succeeded – but only against the director who had also acted as the company’s solicitor. His multi-faceted role as the company’s director, shareholder AND external solicitor was said by Vickery J to constitute “exceptional circumstances”.

His Honour said:

38. It is clear that [the solicitor], in conducting the Proceeding as a solicitor on behalf of the Plaintiff, in respect of which he was not only a director but also, through a corporate vehicle, a shareholder, was in breach of paragraphs 9.2 and 13.4 of the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 and placed himself at serious risk of being in breach of paragraph 13.1 of the rules. As a solicitor in active practice, [the solicitor] ought to have been aware of the effect of these Rules.

39. This placed [the solicitor] in a conflict of interest and rendered his conduct of the litigation on behalf of the Plaintiff improper.

40. This was so despite the fact that, during the life of the Proceeding, neither Palms nor its solicitors … ever once raised the issue of conflict of interest or demand that [the solicitor], or any of the firms at which he worked, cease to act in the Proceeding due to his conflict.

41. Reference is made to paragraphs 9.2, 13.1 and 13.4 of the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 published by the Law Institute of Victoria, which was tendered in evidence:

9.2 A practitioner must not accept instructions to act or continue to act for a person in any matter when the practitioner is, or becomes, aware that the person’s interest in the matter is, or would be, in conflict with the practitioner’s own interest or the interest of an associate. 

13.1 A practitioner must not act as the mere mouthpiece of the client or of the instructing practitioner and must exercise the forensic judgments called for during the case independently, after appropriate consideration of the client’s and any instructing practitioner’s wishes where practicable.

13.4 A practitioner must not unless exceptional circumstances warrant otherwise in the practitioner’s considered opinion:

13.4.1 appear for a client at any hearing, or

13.4.2 continue to act for a client,

in a case in which it is known, or becomes apparent, that the practitioner will be required to give evidence material to the determination of contested issues before the court.

42. It is likely that [the solicitor] was not able to bring an independent mind to decisions made on behalf of the Plaintiff in the conduct of the Proceeding by reason of his conflict of interest and it is likely that a number of the decisions he made were infected with this conflict.

43. An order for costs against a non-party is not dependent upon, but can take into account, any improper conduct by the non-party….

The upshot was that the solicitor personally [cf the firm that employed him] was ordered to pay Palms’ cost of the proceeding on a standard basis until the date of the undisclosed sale and on an indemnity basis thereafter.

A final point is worth noting. Palms’ application was brought partly in reliance upon s 29 of the Civil Procedure Act [as discussed in Yara v Oswal blogged here] but that limb of the application was held to be statute-barred as it had not been made before the proceeding was “finalised” as required by s 30. However, this missed deadline did not matter for Palms, as the Court held that it had power to order the costs against the solicitor under s 24 of the Supreme Court Act and/or in its inherent jurisdiction.

Comment

  • The lawyer who acts for himself has long been thought to have a fool for a client. The lawyer who acts for the company of which he is a director, shareholder or mouthpiece risks the same characterization.
  • A lawyer and client with apparently aligned commercial interests might still have a conflict of interest if the lawyer’s forensic judgment is thought to be compromised as a result of that close association.
  • Lawyers should not act in matters in which they are likely to be material witnesses.
  • And finally, never be too reassured by the fact that no conflict of interest is suggested by your opponents.