The suit was filed after the court dismissed the client's defamation case
The WA Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a case for breaches of contract and duty filed by a client against his lawyers.
Jeffrey Lee and his company Kingsfield commenced defamation proceedings as plaintiffs. Lee's legal firm initially acted for the plaintiffs, but Lawfirst eventually took over the defamation proceedings upon Lee's instructions. Lawfirst was then trading as Bennett + Co. The court ultimately dismissed Lee's defamation claims.
Lee subsequently sued Lawfirst for alleged breaches of contract and duty in connection with the conduct of the defamation proceedings. In addition, Lee made certain professional disciplinary complaints against his two former solicitors from Lawfirst. Lee filed the case with the Legal Profession Complaints Committee (LPCC), which then assessed Lee's complaints. An LPCC officer dismissed Lee's complaints and stated, "No further investigation is required."
Lee elevated the case to the Delegate for the Legal Profession Complaints Committee. However, the tribunal eventually dismissed Lee's application. Lee appealed to the WA Supreme Court.
Lee argued that the appeal fell within s. 60(4) of the Bankruptcy Act. Lee asserted that the substance of his appeal was the negligent conduct of his solicitors in the defamation proceedings causing him losses. Lee claimed that the appeal concerns the personal injury or wrong done to him.
Lee contended that the substance of the matter in the tribunal, and in his appeal, "comes back to the defamation proceedings and the loss of opportunity in the defamation proceedings to settle [those proceedings]." He also cited the State Administrative Tribunal Act 2004, which gives the tribunal power to order payment of costs, including the payment of compensation for any expenses, loss, inconvenience, or embarrassment resulting from the proceeding or the matter because of which the proceedings were brought.
On the other hand, the solicitors argued that the appeal was an action akin to judicial review in connection with proceedings in which the LPCC performs a public function of receiving, investigating and determining or prosecuting complaints made against legal practitioners. The LPCC's decision did not concern any personal injury or wrong done to Lee, nor did it cause or do to him any such personal injury or wrong. It is not an action within the meaning of s. 60(4) of the Bankruptcy Act.
The court ruled that the LPCC officer's or the tribunal's decisions could not be characterised as impugning or affecting Lee's character. The court further explained that the substance of the matter before the tribunal was not one in which Lee sought to recover damages for injury done to his "mind, body, or character." Rather, the matter before the tribunal concerned the LPCC officer's dismissal of Lee's complaints as to the professional conduct of his solicitors. The court emphasised that even if the complaints were brought regarding the solicitors' behaviour in the defamation proceedings, the focus of the complaints was on the solicitors' conduct and not Lee's character or reputation.
Accordingly, the court ruled that Lee's appeal cannot be characterised as an action regarding "any personal injury or wrong" done to him within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Act. The court further explained that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate general law causes of action or award damages for breach of duty. According to the Bankruptcy Act, the appeal is deemed abandoned, and Lee has no personal right to pursue it. Consequently, the court dismissed the appeal.