The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s annual report for 2020/21 was tabled in state parliament today.
The report outlines how, despite significant challenges caused by COVID-19, we have continued to deliver our services and provide oversight of lawyers in pursuit of our goal of maintaining public trust and confidence in the Victorian legal profession. It also details the work we have undertaken to strengthen the protections available for consumers of legal services.
COVID-19 and market impact
The legal profession has proven to be resilient over the last 12 months despite the continuing uncertainty of COVID-19. We worked closely with the Department of Justice and Community Safety, the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar and the Legal Practitioners Liability Committee to provide clear, consistent information to help lawyers navigate the ever-changing circumstances. We commend the profession for its adaptability in response to COVID-19. However, the pandemic is not over yet. We will continue to closely monitor indicators of the health of the profession and adjust our regulatory approach where necessary.
The pandemic also affected the Board’s financial situation. COVID-19 impacted economic markets globally in 2019-20 and, combined with significantly reduced interest rates, resulted in reduced income and a deficit from transactions in the FY2020 year. However, despite continuing low interest rates, exceptional investment gains and distributions in 2020-21 have resulted in a substantial net surplus as at 30 June 2021.
Improving legal practice and ethics
We completed a review and released a report into continuing professional development (CPD), which made 28 recommendations for action to improve the current CPD system in Victoria. We have begun work with key industry stakeholders to shift lawyers’ focus away from pure compliance by raising the profile of CPD as a valuable tool in supporting a lawyers’ reflective approach to their own learning and development.
We also continued to implement our sexual harassment regulatory strategy for decreasing the prevalence of sexual harassment in legal workplaces and responded to the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, which included acquitting two of the four recommendations relating to our work as legal regulator.
Enquiries, complaints and licensing
In 2021, we improved the way we receive enquiries and complaints from the public. We launched an online web form to help consumers access our services. We received 4,022 consumer enquiries, and opened 614 formal complaints against lawyers.
Most consumer matters involved disputes over legal costs, negligence (such as bad case handling) and failure to follow instructions. As with previous years, the areas of law that featured the most complaints were family law, probate, conveyancing and commercial law.
We registered 25,454 lawyers in this period, an increase of 4%, and provided assistance to many thousands of lawyers about their regulatory responsibilities.
Protecting and empowering consumers
Where a lawyer has engaged in conduct that is harmful to consumers, we will investigate and take action. This is an important protection to ensure Victorians can have trust and confidence that legal services are provided with the highest standards of legal practice and ethics.
This year we protected Victorian consumers of legal services by:
- Conducting 222 trust account investigations
- Undertaking 66 disciplinary investigations
- Finalising 10 prosecutions at VCAT and pursuing a further 20 matters
- Successfully applying to remove one lawyer from the Supreme Court’s Roll of Australian lawyers
- Paying a total of $2.14 million in compensation payments to 12 clients who lost money or property they entrusted to their lawyer.
Alternative dispute resolution is a critical tool in helping lawyers and consumers settle their issues. In 2021 we conducted our first online mediations, with both lawyers and consumers reporting positive feedback on the process. We also increased the use of Management System Directions to require lawyers or law practices that we have investigated to undertake mandatory work to improve their legal practice.
Access to justice
We provided funding to a number of key organisations across the legal and justice sectors, including the Victorian Bar, the Law Institute of Victoria, the Law Library of Victoria, Justice Connect, the Victoria Law Foundation and the Victorian Law Reform Commission. We also provided significant funding to help Victoria Legal Aid meet the legal needs of some of the most vulnerable Victorians.
Our grants program continued its important work in providing funding for policy research, law reform, legal education and innovative improvements to legal services. Financial uncertainty early in the financial year resulted in a reduction in the size of our annual grant program. Despite this, we were pleased to be able to award $1 million in funding to continue the work of seven legal and community organisations to help vulnerable Victorians gain access to legal services.
Quotes to be attributed to Fiona McLeay, Board CEO and Commissioner
“Our staff have worked tirelessly to provide support to Victorian lawyers and consumers despite the significant challenges of the year. We are also proud of the many lawyers in the community who showed great adaptability and perseverance in continuing to provide vital services to our community.”