Queensland Law Society

If a solicitor is abusive, uses bad language, or makes nasty or hurtful comments, is this a valid cause for complaint?

In the Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012 ('ASCR') Rule 4 lists various fundamental ethical duties of a solicitor, including to be courteous in all dealings in the course of legal practice.

Under Rule 5 you must not engage in conduct which demonstrates that you are not a fit and proper person to practise law, or which is likely to be prejudicial to, or diminish the public confidence in, the administration of justice, or bring the profession into disrepute.

In recent years a number of Queensland solicitors have been disciplined for such conduct. It is clear from the reports that this behaviour is worthy of sanction.

Perhaps the most notable case is Baker v Legal Services Commissioner [2006] QCA 145, where a solicitor used offensive language to, or in the presence of, a client, as well as members of staff. He called the client an ‘absolute moron’, and said to his secretary in the presence of a client, ‘I can't deal with #### morons. Get out of my office’. He used the word 'bullshit'. He also said to a client in the reception area ‘What the #### are you doing here?... You don’t have the right to waste our ####ing time. I have spent enough ####ing time on the ####ing file. You are a ####ing moron. If you had signed the ####ing contract properly in the first place we wouldn't be in the ####ing mess. #### off out of my reception area.’

The Legal Practice Tribunal stated that ‘It is inconceivable that the behaviour the subject of (the charges) could ever be regarded as acceptable behaviour by a solicitor towards a client or an employee. It is bound to bring the profession into disrepute.’

Not all cases are so extreme. In recent years the Legal Practice Committee has found unsatisfactory professional conduct in cases where:

  • a solicitor insulted her client’s opponent in a de facto property dispute, saying ‘You are a grotesquely ugly man. I cannot believe that (client’s name) would have been with someone as ugly as you.’
  • a solicitor said to his client at court words to the effect 'I told you the deal was $2,000 cash. F### this, I'm going to let you go in on your own'
  • a solicitor wrote an offensive, insulting and acrimonious letter to a third party.

For an example of ‘scandalous and offensive submissions’ to a Magistrates Court and an ‘improper’ intimidatory letter to the presiding Magistrate, each amounting to professional misconduct, see Legal Services Commissioner v Turley [2008] LPT 4. And see Lawyers, Language and Legal Professional Standards: Legal Services Commissioner v Turley [2008] LPT 4; Jones, Nicky 28 U. Queensland L. J. 353 (2009).

Legal Services Commissioner v Winning [2008] LPT 13 and Legal Services Commissioner v Winning (No. 2) [2008] LPT 14 involved a number of charges of using insulting or offensive language:

  • to a police prosecutor in a court hearing (charge 2)
  • to a Crown Prosecutor in a private, although work-related, telephone conversation (charge 3)
  • to officers of the Australian Crime Commission executing a search warrant (charge 4)
  • to a paralegal employee of the ACC (charge 5)
  • to a Crown Prosecutor in the foyer of the court (charge 6)
  • to another lawyer at the bar table overheard by a DPP instructing clerk (charge 7)
  • about the then DPP Leanne Clare in submissions to the Magistrates Court in the course of defending himself in committal proceedings (charge 9).

The solicitor was found guilty of charges 4, 5, 7 and 9 only. In the second of those judgments, dealing with penalty, the Legal Practice Tribunal said:

‘[6]…………..The charges in respect of which the respondent has been found guilty, except for charge 9, relate to conduct in the form of coarse and abusive language, the tolerance for which may be expected to change with changing community standards. Here, assessed against contemporary community standards, the conduct was so grossly offensive as to bring the legal profession into disrepute.

[7] The reputation of the legal profession is, as was observed in Bolton v Law Society [1994] 1 WLR 512, at 518, its most valuable asset. Although the reputation to which the court was there referring tends to be generally understood to refer to matters of honesty and integrity, it can also encompass courteous or, at least, civil conduct, to professional colleagues (Legal Profession (Solicitors) Rule 2007 Rule 21) and those who work within the broader rubric of legal services, including police. Coarse and insulting personal conduct by a member of the profession in the course of acting as a legal practitioner will diminish the standing of the profession as a whole.’

In Legal Services Commissioner v Cooper [2011] QCAT 209 there was a finding of unsatisfactory professional conduct where a solicitor wrote several letters to another solicitor in a family law dispute, the terms of which were insulting of the other solicitor and of their client. Of the issue that the letters were written on the client's instructions and that the client had strong feelings about the matter, the Tribunal said that the solicitor should have fought harder against allowing the heat of the dispute to colour his own language.

Further reading:

Can persistent acts of discourteous and offensive behaviour amount to professional misconduct? by Stafford Shepherd 17 April 2013.

Professional courtesy: Is there still a place for it in modern practice? by Petrina Macpherson Proctor February 2010.

Professional Courtesy. What does it really mean? by Megan Mahon Proctor March 2008.

NSW Office of the Legal Services Commissioner ‘Civility & professionalism – standards of courtesy’ November 2006 and its Addendum.