Engaging in unqualified legal practice, or falsely claiming that you are qualified to engage in legal practice, is a criminal offence in Victoria. Each year, we investigate instances of unqualified legal practice by individuals and/or businesses.
Generally, three things may be unqualified legal practice:
- A person with no legal qualifications who doesn’t hold a practising certificate, but engages or represents that they can engage in legal practice
- Non-lawyer professionals (like conveyancers, accountants and registered migration agents) who can carry out some legal work, but exceed the limitations of their authority
- Lawyers who do not hold a valid practising certificate, who engage in or represent that they can engage in legal practice.
To understand who can engage in legal practice, see the Who can practise page of our website.
Why is unqualified legal practice such a concern?
Unqualified legal practice can cause great harm to the public. In the most serious cases, people may unknowingly commit criminal or regulatory offences when acting on unqualified advice. They may even lose access to genuine legal remedies for loss and/or damage they have suffered. Clients who use an unqualified person or business to perform legal services for them are not protected by a lawyer’s professional indemnity insurance or our compensation scheme if things go wrong.
What is engaging in unqualified legal practice?
Below is a list of some common examples of legal services. If an unqualified person or business performs any of these activities, they may be engaging in unqualified legal practice:
- Giving legal advice to another person about that person’s legal affairs
- Taking responsibility of another person’s litigation
- Drafting legal documents or legal correspondence for other people
- Appearing in court on behalf of another person
- Writing letters of demand on behalf of another person
- Making threats of legal action on behalf of another person
- Using legal words and language in correspondence.
Even if these services are offered for free, or if the advice is correct, it may still be an offence.
What is advertising or representing an entitlement to engage in legal practice?
A person may also commit an offence if they tell people, or imply through their actions or words, that they can provide legal services when they can’t. That is, they advertise or represent they can provide legal services when they are not allowed to. It doesn’t matter if they say they are not a lawyer or use disclaimers for the services provided.
There are also specific job titles that are protected by law so people don’t get confused about who can do legal work for them. A non-lawyer can’t use any of the following titles to describe themselves or their job/business, either verbally, in print or on line.
- Legal practitioner
A person using these titles can create an impression that they are entitled to engage in legal practice, so the titles are restricted for use only by those who are.
For non-lawyers, ignorance of the law is not an excuse for engaging in or representing an entitlement to engage in unqualified legal practice.
For lawyers, inexperience, unfamiliarity with conventions or a simple oversight are not excuses for forgetting to renew their practising certificate. It is the lawyer’s responsibility to renew their practising certificate every year.
Conduct of concern
When we receive information about possible unqualified legal practice, we look closely at particular behaviours to determine whether the matter should be investigated. When deciding what action to take, we look at a range of considerations including:
- The seriousness of the conduct
- Whether it was an isolated incident or pattern of behaviour and/or motivated by financial reward
- The actual or potential harm to the public arising from the conduct.
The penalty for representing an entitlement to engage in legal practice is a fine. The penalty for actually engaging in unqualified legal practice is more severe, and can include a fine and/or imprisonment.
In addition to issuing criminal charges, we may also ask the Supreme Court of Victoria for an order that the person or business stop breaking the law.
Failure to comply with an order of the Court is a serious matter, and may amount to contempt of Court. Punishment for contempt includes a fine or in the most serious cases, imprisonment.
Lawyers, law practices and their principals can also face disciplinary action where they have engaged unqualified persons, or misrepresent the role of the unqualified person, outside of the permitted limits.
Where a law practice has allowed an employee to engage in legal practice without the proper qualifications, the law practice cannot charge any legal fees for the work. They must also repay all fees received for the employee’s work while they were engaging in unqualified legal practice. This means when a person has operated unlicensed for months or longer, all client fees charged by the firm at a solicitor rate must be returned to clients.
How to check if a lawyer is qualified
You can use our Register of Lawyers search to check if a lawyer is currently licensed to practise. The Register also contains information about their place of practice, their practising certificate type, their areas of practice and any languages they may speak.
How to report unqualified legal practice
If you have become aware of a lawyer or other person who is practising unqualified, you can notify us through the lawyer enquiry form.