A Sunshine Coast lawyer has been struck off the roll after a litany of incidents involving disreputable behaviour and ethical breaches in 2021.
Donna Maree Sewell, sole practitioner at Tewantin firm See Well Law Pty Ltd (SWL), faced eight charges brought by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) and was ruled to have engaged in professional misconduct by the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal on Friday.
The charges related to serious allegations Ms Sewell made against a judge, other lawyers and a former client, which she knew to be untrue; her interference in the operation of the business of a former client, relying on authority which she did not have; and her unfounded attack on an LSC officer.
Charge 1 was prompted by a series of emails Ms Sewell sent after she was ordered to pay $35,000 in costs following a protracted application for leave to appeal against a refusal by a magistrate to review a decision of a costs assessor.
In the emails she made serious allegations against the presiding judge, including that he did not give her a fair hearing, had acted in a partisan way and had punished her with a costs order. She also made serious allegations against a solicitor, including that he was a murderer, a thief, and had deprived an elderly person of their liberty.
The almost a dozen emails were sent in June and July of 2021 to a range of parties including the Fair Work Ombudsman, LSC, Commonwealth Attorney-General, Queensland Attorney-General, Queensland Bar Association, Queensland Law Society, Lexon Insurance, Maroochydore Courthouse, and two radio stations.
The emails included statements by Ms Sewell that the judge had “encouraged my colleagues to act like a pack of dogs to bite me”; that he owed her a public apology for “calling me a liar and taking adverse action when on sick leave”; that she and her firm were being “financially punished for sticking up for the elderly and aged”; and that the solicitor had put his late client “in the house of death”, murdered her, and sold her house against her wishes.
One email included a link to a GoFundMe page Ms Sewell had set up to seek donations to help cover her legal fees.
“It is apparent that the respondent intended to maximise the publicity which might be attracted by her allegations, and thus the harm to the persons against whom the allegations were made,” Member Lyons said.
He said Ms Sewell “acted in a manner that was contrary to the fundamental ethical duties a solicitor is expected to follow and uphold”.
“The discipline application alleged that the respondent’s conduct was likely to a material degree to bring the legal profession into disrepute, because its tone was rude, discourteous and below the standard of courtesy that the courts and the profession are entitled to expect from a legal practitioner,” he said.
“To say that the tone of the correspondence was rude and discourteous, while often true, does not fully capture the gravity of the respondent’s conduct.”
Member Lyons said the allegations should be found to constitute professional misconduct.
Charges 2 to 7 related to Ms Sewell’s conduct after the termination of a retainer by a client, who subsequently lost his decision-making capacity, via actions such as having locks changed at his business.
“To claim authority which she did not have, and to use it in the way she did, seems to me to be a very serious departure from the standards expected of a member of the profession, and highly likely to bring it into disrepute. It is considered to amount to professional misconduct,” Member Lyons said of charges 2 to 5.
Member Lyons ruled that Charge 6, which related to Ms Sewell making unsubstantiated allegations that an employee had been stealing from her former client, did not amount to misconduct.
He ruled that Charge 7, which related to the tenor and content of correspondence to her former client’s family, were not unprofessional or likely to a material degree to bring the legal profession into disrepute.
Charge 8 arose from several emails sent by Ms Sewell to the LSC, and other parties including the Crime and Conduct Commission, relating to the execution of two search warrants at SWL in 2019.
The emails included statements that an LSC officer “was an idiot”, had “blood on his hands after raiding my office” and had wasted public money.
The LSC alleged Ms Sewell had “corresponded in a manner that would demonstrate that she is not a fit and proper person to practise law”, suggesting, for example, that the correspondence was “offensive, provocative and/or unfounded”; and was “discourteous, erratic, offensive and/or unprofessional” in tone and content.
Member Lyons found Ms Sewell’s behaviour which led to charge 8 also amounted to professional misconduct.
He also ordered Ms Sewell pay the LSC’s court costs.