ANALYSIS: With a number of recent high-profile scandals involving practitioners of the law, should we even trust lawyers in the first place? Gary Johnston doesn’t hold back and tells us what he really thinks.
I don’t like lawyers. As a profession that is, it’s not personal. Well, not really.
The truth is, I’m completely opposed to the way lawyers profit from other people’s vicissitudes, oozing fake charm and transparent bonhomie whilst their hapless ‘client’ stumbles through the major stress and chagrin associated with divorce, criminal charges, house purchase or any of the other discomfitures where you don’t actually need a lawyer, but will be majorly disadvantaged if you don’t engage one.
And then there’s the cost; always a lot more than you expected, bumped up in no small manner by the fact that most lawyers charge like El Toro Asesino, the killer bull of Caballería de Sevilla.
Lawyers, run the world. If you don’t believe me, consider how many politicians started their career in law school, secure in the knowledge they cannot only interpret legislation, but actually shape it, almost always to the advantage of the haves rather than the have-nots. As in, haven’t got a law degree. It might sound like sacrilege to most Australians, but I’ve never been fond of the ‘classic’ movie The Castle for the simple reason I find its intrinsic aphorism – that stupid people need benevolent lawyers – offensive, disingenuous and not very funny.
Another impetus for my aversion is the reality that whenever lawyers do screw up – and it happens a lot – they usually do so with relative impunity.
I’ve spent a large part of my life in courts around the world watching solicitors and barristers fumble their way through cases with obvious indifference to the potential fate of their clients, the law and, in most cases, the victim of the alleged crime.
Take, for instance, the recent matter of Cardinal George Pell. Robert Richter, his barrister said to be on a retainer of around $15,000 a day, the most ‘high profile’ brief in Australia, and all he could manage by way of mitigation, was a decrepit plea that Pell’s offending, was merely “vanilla sexual penetration”.
If Richter – described by a former Supreme Court judge as having “a tendency to talk a lot of bullshit” – is the best, how bad are the rest?
Answer – very, very bad indeed.
And, not only bad, but, in certain cases, duplicitous and borderline criminal.
A Royal Commission into the issue of the Management of Police Informants is currently being heard in Melbourne, focusing in no small part on the conduct of a criminal defender initially referred to in the press as ‘Lawyer X’.
No longer endowed with the privilege of anonymity, ‘X’ is, in fact, Nicola Gobbo, one of the youngest barristers in Australia to be awarded the wig and gown and, it transpires, a long-term informant for Victoria Police.
Given the number 3838, Gobbo is alleged to have provided ‘classified’ information about her clients in at least 386 cases over a decade and a half, many involving notorious figures from Melbourne’s underworld.
According to evidence given to the commission by another barrister, Zarah Garde-Wilson, Gobbo’s was no isolated case. Practising lawyers were still registered as police informers as recently as last year, she told the ABC in March of this year. Furthermore, former Victorian detective Ron ‘Rent-a-quote’ Iddles told Melbourne radio station 3AW, that the use of lawyers as informants was ‘well known’ and that up to 15 senior police officers had turned a “blind eye” to the potentially illegal – and definitely immoral – practice and consequences.
Nicola Gobbo: Lawyer who snitched on her criminal clients and others to police as a paid informant (Image: ABC)
So prevalent is the notion of malpractice amongst the law fraternity that VCAT, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal has a special division dedicated to ‘legal practice’, which is where you’ll find, amongst other exemplars of unprofessional behaviour, the matter of Melbourne solicitor John Mingos, found guilty of two charges of misconduct at common law in that he, “engaged in conduct that would be regarded by lawyers of good repute and competence as dishonorable or disgraceful” (VCAT No. J43/201).
After failing to turn up at court to represent a man on a criminal charge, an inaction which resulted in his client being arrested on a police warrant, Mingos attempted to alter the date on the court summons in a ham-fisted and ultimately doomed endeavour to absolve himself of any blame.
Describing Mingos’s actions as “inexplicable and deliberately misleading”, the VCAT tribunal eventually accepted the solicitor’s guilty plea before turning to the consequent penalty.
No less explicable was the sanction: Mingos’s practising certificate was cancelled for one year, and for a further two years any practising certificate he could hold would be as an employee solicitor only. A certificate entitling him to act as a principal of a legal practice could therefore not be available to him, a suspension which coincidentally, is due to expire in a week or two’s time.
A reprimand, no more, no less. Nothing to see here, play on.
That was despite our learned friend Mingos having a rap sheet of prior disciplinary findings stretching back to 1984, including previous cases in front of the Tribunal in 2013 and 2014. As well as four internal findings of the Legal Services Commissioner between 2011 and 2013, and two matters in 1999 and 1984.
Which other professional industry grants such repeat offending and malfeasance with this much constant rewardment?
Guess what, Mingos is back in business. I checked.
Still practicing out of a shabby building in Melbourne’s Glen Iris suburb, Mingos presumably benefited greatly from the fact that apart from an online publication called LawyersWeekly.com.au – no, no relation to us despite the weekly shenaginans – none of the mainstream media considered his conduct in the slightest bit newsworthy.
Maybe it wasn’t news because lawyer misconduct is so common. Or, because the putative victim was a potential crim. Who knows? Whatever, it, more or less, ensured Mingos’s actions remained hidden. Until now.
Now, I’m not saying that every lawyer is incompetent or corrupt. Obviously, there are many solicitors, barristers and legal agents who are hard-working, honorable and scrupulously honest.
Well, maybe not many. But, some.
Like the rancid apple which spoils the entire barrel however, the actions of these dodgy, double-dealing shysters inevitably debase those who are ethically clean, leading to a general and clearly not altogether misconstrued notion that lawyers are the sort of people you’d do well to avoid, if only it were possible.
But don’t take my word for it. You be the judge.
On second thoughts, don’t.
After all, every judge was a lawyer once too.