You could be forgiven for developing a certain view about how lawyers are allowed to conduct themselves, if the closest contact you’d had was Harvey Specter in Suits. While Harvey’s “win a no win situation by rewriting the rules!” is entertaining television, the reality of legal practice in Australia is thankfully quite different.

The legal profession in Australia has a long history of strong regulatory protections for clients. For example, lawyers must be honest and courteous, maintain their clients’ confidentiality, act in their client’s best interests, retain professional objectivity, avoid conflicts of interest, and uphold their duties and obligations to the court.

Put simply, legal ethics are the principles and values which, along with legislation and case law, regulate a lawyer's behaviour. Some of the documented rules of ethics for family lawyers can be found in:

  • the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012;
  • the Best Practice Guidelines for Lawyers Doing Family Law Work; and
  • the Legal Profession Acts in each state and territory.

While lawyers must follow their client’s instructions (provided they are lawful, proper and competent), they must also provide clients with objective legal advice about the various options available to the client at law, which might not always align with a client’s personal views. Ultimately, however, lawyers have a paramount duty to the court and if their client’s instructions conflict with that duty, they may have to cease acting.

So what should you look for in a family lawyer? Although every client will have individual preferences as to who they want to represent them, here are a few things to think about when engaging with a family lawyer:

  • Are they providing you with clear and timely advice without using legal jargon?
  • Are they taking a constructive and conciliatory approach to your matter?
  • Have they demonstrated that the best interests and protection of children is paramount?
  • Have they provided you with advice about options other than proceeding to court?
  • Have they explained how your costs will be calculated and provided clear costs estimates?

It is also important to be aware that in addition to the obligations they owe to clients, a lawyer’s paramount duty is to the court and to the administration of justice. Lawyers must never mislead a court, must always honour undertakings provided to a court, and must remain independent, courteous and honest in all dealings with the court, other solicitors, parties and witnesses. In the event of any inconsistencies between the duties of a lawyer to their client and to the court, the duties to the court will prevail. A lawyer can jeopardize their practising certificate if they disregard their duty to the court.

So you see, legal ethics is a serious matter. It is important for you to know what to expect from your family lawyer and what obligations they owe to you and to the court.

If you would like to know more about legal professional ethics please contact your local law society or law institute (in Victoria).