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Inadequate disclosure – graduate not ‘fit and proper’ for admission

In Angeleska v Victorian Legal Admissions Board [2021] VSC 829, the Supreme Court of Victoria considered an appeal from the decision of the Victorian Legal Admissions Board, refusing to issue the applicant with a certificate of compliance.

Background

In Victoria, an applicant for admission to the legal profession requires a certificate of compliance issued by the Victorian Legal Admissions Board. In order to be issued with a compliance certificate, the applicant must demonstrate that they completed the appropriate academic qualifications and practical legal training, and that they are a fit and proper person to be admitted to the Australian legal profession.1

Ms Angeleska (the applicant) graduated and completed her practical legal training in 2015. On 1 June 2021, the Victorian Legal Admissions Committee, as delegate of the board, refused her application on the basis that she had not demonstrated she was a fit and proper person to be admitted to the legal profession.

There were a range of disclosure matters that related to the decision, and contributed to the protracted nature of the decision-making process. The applicant swore her first disclosure affidavit on 3 June 2015, and then swore nine subsequent affidavits dealing with further disclosure. Many of those subsequent affidavits responded to requests for further information made by the board.

Issues considered

The Supreme Court of Victoria heard the application de novo. The court noted there were a range of suitability matters, including a ‘myki’ charge, Centrelink debt, RSPCA charge and an instance of academic conduct. However, the court considered that these issues, properly and voluntarily disclosed, would not by themselves have led to the finding that the applicant was not a fit and proper person.2

Instead, the court was primarily concerned with the applicant’s past conduct in litigation. The applicant had been involved in litigation for herself and her husband. Notably, between February and August 2010, the applicant was appointed litigation guardian and acted as lay advocate for her husband (with leave of the court). Among other things, the applicant’s conduct included asking questions of witnesses that were aimed at embarrassing them, or which contained ‘not-so-subtle’ threats that the witness would be sued. The applicant also put matters to witnesses without any factual foundation, and irresponsibly accused witnesses of lying.3

The applicant argued that the litigation had taken place before she had even begun her law degree, and at the time, she hadn’t understood the gravity of her conduct. The court, however, considered that while it was true the litigation commenced prior to the applicant commencing her law degree, she maintained the actions throughout her law studies through appeals and delay.

Further, the court emphasised the need for candour when seeking admission. While the applicant had disclosed her involvement in the litigation, she had failed to provide the board with details about her conduct within those proceedings. The court stated:

“I find that the manner of disclosure demonstrates an ongoing serious error of judgment. She proceeded on the basis that comments of judges as to her own conduct (both critical and praiseworthy) were not matters requiring disclosure on oath because they were matters in the public domain about which the Board could inform itself. Without going to honesty, the evident need for disclosure of such matters bears upon her knowledge and her ability: equally important aspects of an inquiry into whether she is a fit and proper person.”4

The court concluded that the applicant had failed to demonstrate adequate insight into her conduct, and affirmed the decision of the board.

Key takeaways

Although the admissions system in Victoria is slightly different to that in Queensland, the case remains instructive for those seeking admission to the legal profession.

The case demonstrates that the way a person participates in litigation, even in a personal capacity, can be relevant to the question of whether they are fit and proper to be admitted to the legal profession.

The case also highlights the importance of candid and full disclosure. Failure to fully and frankly disclose relevant matters can lead to a finding that a person is not a fit and proper person to be admitted, even where the conduct itself would not have led to such a finding if it was disclosed.

Irene Gallagher prepared this article while working as a Law Graduate Intern at Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre. It has been approved by Grace van Baarle, Solicitor and Manager, QLS Ethics and Practice Centre.

Footnotes
1 Legal Profession Uniform Law s17(1). In Queensland, the relevant provisions are Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld) s39(2) (the role of the Board) and s35 (the role of the Supreme Court).
2 Ibid [77].
3 Ibid [26].
4 Ibid [96].

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