Rule 8 of the Legal Profession (Solicitors) Conduct Rules 2015 (ACT) provides that a solicitor must follow a client’s lawful, proper and competent instructions. Implicit in this is the requirement that a solicitor be confident that their client has the capacity to give those instructions.
Some areas of the profession are likely more attuned to these requirements. Certainly, practitioners acting in wills and estates will very familiar with the requirements surrounding capacity and issues that may arise in respect of same. However, it is incumbent upon every solicitor to ensure that, when taking instructions, they can be reasonably satisfied that their client has the requisite mental capacity to give and understand the instructions that they are intending to convey. If not so satisfied, the solicitor must not act for or represent the client. As has been found recently, a failure to be alert to issues of incapacity has the potential to generate liability in negligence on the part of solicitors.
Presumption of mental capacity
As a starting point, it is a presumption at common law that every adult person is competent to make their own decisions and, accordingly, has the capacity to provide proper instructions. This is the basis on which the majority of solicitors act for their clients, as questions regarding mental capacity and fitness to give instructions will not ordinarily arise (aside from in particular areas such as practitioners working in with persons under the age of eighteen or suffering from obvious or know mental health diseases).
However, importantly this presumption can be displaced. Characteristics such as old age, incapacity, mental infirmity, suspicion of undue influence or fraud or the inability to communicate are stated as those which can displace the presumption. In the first instance, it is for the solicitor to determine whether there is some question regarding the client’s capacity to give proper instructions. If they consider that there is, an obligation arises for the solicitor to carry out further investigation before they may act for the client.
Understandably, in the rush of receiving client instructions and ensuring that the work gets done, it can often be difficult to take the proper time to consider whether a client has capacity to give instructions. Solicitors also are not, or at least not by virtue of that legal ramification, medical practitioners, which can be an understandable point of unease for (particularly junior) solicitors in purporting to evaluate their client’s mental capacity. In relation to these issues, the ACT Solicitors Conduct Rules refer to a guide drafted by the Law Society of NSW “When a Client’s Mental Capacity is in Doubt: A Practical Guide for Solicitors”, which contains practical advice for solicitors to refer to when their client’s capacity is in doubt. It also includes a list of red flags, which if present ought to at least raise further investigation on the part of the solicitor before commencing to act.
Some red flags include:
- difficulty with recall or memory loss
- lack of mental flexibility
- the client is in hospital or aged care
- deterioration in personal presentation, mood or social withdrawal
- difficulty with communications
- a limited ability to interact, including if others interact on the client’s behalf
Standard of capacity
The standard of capacity has been stipulated in Gibbons v Wright. This case emphasises that there is no fixed standard of capacity that will be applicable in all interactions. Rather, the determination of capacity is whether a party can understand the nature of the legal consequence of their actions and decisions.
The English authority of Masterman-Lister v Brutton and Co, Jewell and Home Counties Dairies, which has been widely followed in Australia, puts forward two propositions: the mental capacity required is capacity in relation to the transaction to be effected, and what is required is the capacity to understand the nature of that transaction.
The position is quite clear: the client must understand the nature of any instructions they give in relation to the transaction, including an understanding of the legal consequences of those instructions. Capacity is directly referable to the particular transaction concerned. What is important to note is that the ultimate decision reached, even if it is a poor one (in the opinion of the practitioner), is almost irrelevant. What is important is that the client fully understands the decision-making process and, accordingly, the decision and its consequences.
Steps you should take
Where a client’s mental capacity is in any doubt whatsoever, it is crucial that the solicitor take thorough and contemporaneous file notes of any interactions with the client. This becomes especially important in circumstances where proceedings may be commenced at a later date when the question of mental capacity may be raised. One example of this is where the validity of a will is later challenged. A contemporaneous record of events can help to resolve this argument.
While solicitors may be in some position to determine whether a client can adequately give instructions, they are generally not experts when it comes to determining the mental health or otherwise of a person. As stated above, the concern is with the client’s capacity to understand and make the legal decisions which will affect them, and consequently receiving the opinions of qualified medical and psychiatric experts can be of great assistance in reinforcing, or alternatively changing, a solicitor’s preliminary view regarding capacity.
Raising this matter with the client can be a delicate affair, and questions regarding proper capacity have the potential to lead to distress. However, framing it in terms of a legal need to ensure that the client can give proper instructions so that the decisions they make will stand up under future scrutiny can make this an easier process.
No matter how necessary a solicitor may consider an expert assessment, it should only occur where the client has given fully informed consent. In order to give informed consent, the client must understand the benefits and risks, likely outcomes, and the potential impacts on the client’s control over other aspects of their lives (financial and business affairs) of undertaking the expert assessment. Where a client does not give their consent but their solicitor remains in doubt as to their capacity to give instructions, the solicitor must be cautious in how to proceed. In the event the solicitor is not confident the client has the capacity to provide instructions, the assessment should be recommended again. Without this, the solicitor may not be able to continue acting.
In the realities of a busy practice, there will undoubtedly be occasions where it does not seem as if a solicitor has time to properly consider questions regarding a client’s capacity, for instance in litigation where the hearing of a matter is unfolding before the court in real time. However, and in spite of the protections offered by the advocate’s immunity (touched on below), where an issue regarding capacity is raised about a party to court proceedings, the proper course is for the proceedings to be adjourned so that the question of that party’s capacity can be determined by the court, one way or the other.
While this may seem an inconvenience and contrary to the intention of a swift resolution of court proceedings, it is critically important to resolve any issue regarding capacity before proceedings can be continued. Where a person is found to not possess capacity, it would be an abuse of process, and likely negligence by the solicitor acting, for proceedings to continue. Indeed, were the issue to be raised by the solicitors for the other party, and it was found that the first party lacked proper mental capacity, proceedings would likely be stayed on that basis. Questions of costs may also arise (including against solicitors personally) if an opposing side later objects to the incurring of costs where a client without mental capacity is unable to meet a costs order but, in all likelihood, never understood the consequences of being involved in litigation.
Protection offered by advocate’s immunity – a case study
A case which examines the legal principles surrounding mental capacity and also the consequences for what Bell J termed “capacity negligence” is Goddard Elliott (a firm) v Fritsch  VSC 87. The case goes into great detail regarding the standard of capacity required, and the consequences where a solicitor acts on the instructions of a client which are invalid.
In this case, Mr Fritsch was sued by his solicitors, Goddard Elliott, for outstanding legal fees owed for work done in settling a Family Court matter regarding the property settlement resulting from his divorce. He counter-claimed against the firm, his argument being that he would never have settled his case had he been in proper mental health and that Goddard Elliott were negligent in acting on his instructions when he did not have the capacity to give them, a fact of which they ought to have been aware.
Bell J went to great lengths to discuss the principles surrounding the area of a client’s capacity to give instructions, including the responsibilities of a solicitor and how proceedings in those circumstances should be managed. Many of those principles are those discussed above. His Honour found that Goddard Elliott had been negligent in acting on Mr Fritsch’s instructions to settle the case in circumstances where they should have been aware that he did not have the mental capacity to give those instructions.
Despite Bell J’s findings regarding the negligence of Goddard Elliott, His Honour ultimately held that Goddard Elliott was not liable to Mr Fritsch, despite the finding of negligence, due to the advocate’s immunity. The firm was not held liable to Mr Fritsch because the instructions to settle was work which was intimately connected with the conduct of a case in court and thereby protected by the advocate’s immunity.
His Honour found this conclusion “deeply troubling”, yet felt forced to it by authority. While in this instance the advocate’s immunity did protect the negligent solicitors, there is clearly a risk that the concerns raised by His Honour will ultimately lead to a situation in which solicitors cannot rely on the advocate’s immunity where they take instructions from clients who do not have the capacity to give them. Furthermore, solicitors taking instructions in non-litigious matters will not be afforded the protection of advocate’s immunity.
It is thus fundamentally important that practitioners in all areas are aware of their requirements and duties regarding a client’s capacity and take all appropriate steps that are required to ascertain whether a client can competently give instructions. Not only does this serve the client’s best interests, but where it is subsequently found that a client lacks capacity and their solicitor continued acting regardless (and Goddard Elliott v Fritsch makes clear that this is a matter for determination by a court), the solicitor may well be exposed to personal liability.
The consequences for breach of these principles can be severe, even where there has been no impropriety. From a financial standpoint, the solicitor may be liable to have indemnity costs awarded against them (if in the conduct of proceedings), and may also be liable for any damages caused by the negligence. Depending on the damage caused, this could be significant, with the solicitors in Goddard Elliott v Fritsch facing a claimed sum of near $1,000,000.
From a professional standpoint, negligence such as this could well lead to findings of unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct. In the most serious of situations, it is easy to see an occasion where a solicitor could be struck off the roll for their negligence. The warning is clear: the matter of a client’s capacity is not something to be taken lightly.
Because the question of a client’s mental health is undoubtedly a serious topic, it is a topic with which all practitioners should be very familiar. Where you hold concerns in a particular situation, remember that there are a wide range of resources you may turn to, including our Law Society, the NSW Law Society guide mentioned above, as well as fellow and more senior practitioners and/or medical experts.
With today’s advances in mental health awareness, practitioners should ensure that their clients are capable of providing instructions at all times. With ever-present obligations and an often stressful work life, solicitors should also be encouraged to take steps maintain their own personal mental health as well. The support systems identified above are available for you personally as well, should you require. By protecting your own mental health, you assist not only yourself but your clients and the wider community.