The recent case of Victorian Legal Services Commissioner v Idroos1 emphasised the consequences a lawyer may face when pressured to act for friends.
Mr Idroos (the practitioner) practised as a sole practitioner in the area of migration law until November 2018.
The judgment arose out of an application brought by the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner (VLSC) against the practitioner due to his conduct in a matter where he was engaged to act for friends in a business visa application.
Charges brought by the VLSC
Charges were brought by the VLSC and accepted by the practitioner before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the tribunal). They included:2
Trust money breaches
Mr Idroos received $7000 in advance from his clients for his services when he held a practising certificate which did not authorise receipt of trust monies. He placed those funds into his personal bank account.
The practitioner was aware this was a breach, but claimed that his relationship with the client went beyond the normal client/lawyer relationship due to their long-standing connection. The tribunal rejected this reasoning, emphasised that trust monies were ‘sacred’ and proper handling of such monies was a fundamental obligation of a solicitor.3 The tribunal noted that acting for friends cannot be justified as an excuse to depart from their usual practices.4
Providing another client’s information
To demonstrate what was required of the visa application, the practitioner provided a different client’s CV to his clients without that other client’s consent or knowledge. The practitioner acknowledged this was a breach of confidentiality but claimed he did so to demonstrate the weaknesses in their application.5
The VLSC submitted that it would have taken little effort to redact sensitive information from the documents, but the tribunal was still not satisfied this would have been appropriate. The tribunal noted that clients expect personal information provided to their lawyers would be treated with complete confidentiality.6
Falsifying emails from government departments and failing to progress matters
The practitioner indicated that he felt constant pressure to provide evidence of progress to his clients because of their personal relationship. Consequently, he fabricated two emails purporting to be from two government departments which indicated their application was in progress. The practitioner dishonestly engaged in such conduct to cover up his delay. The tribunal regarded Mr Idroos’ conduct as disgraceful and dishonourable by practitioners of good repute and competency.7
Failing to respond to statutory information requests
The practitioner was granted various extensions for providing information requested by the VLSC but failed to meet those timeframes.
The tribunal found all charges constituted professional misconduct under the Legal Professional Uniform Law,8 and with the charges relating to the falsification of emails and failing to progress the matter, there was misconduct at common law.
A frequent argument raised by the practitioner was that he felt pressured to act for the clients due to their personal relations and that his mistake was in not being able to say ‘no’. While the tribunal recognised the practitioner’s intention was never to enrich himself, it emphasised that lawyers must nevertheless put their professional obligations first, regardless of any personal connection with the client.9
The tribunal was of the view that Mr Idroos was professionally isolated and lacked the experience, skills and peer support he needed to prevent engaging in such conduct. The tribunal found that even with some awareness of his fundamental obligations, he was still unable to avoid serious breaches of his ethical and professional duties.10
The tribunal reprimanded Mr Idroos and barred him from applying for a practising certificate for a period of two years. After those two years, the practitioner could apply for a practising certificate as an employee only. He was ordered to undertake formal education in ethics and to pay the VLSC’s costs.
For further guidance on this issue, please see QLS Guidance statement no.23 Acting for family and friends.
Janelle Linato is a law student in the Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre. This article has been approved by Grace van Baarle, Manager, Ethics Solicitor, QLS Ethics and Practice Centre.
1 (Legal Practice)  VCAT 327 (Idroos).
2 Ibid 8.
3 Ibid 22.
4 Ibid 21.
5 Ibid 25-27.
6 Ibid 28-29.
7 Ibid 38.
8 2014 (Nsw) s297(1).
9 Idroos (n1) 58.
10 Ibid 67.