The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s annual report for 2019/20 was tabled in parliament today.
The report outlines how we have supported lawyers to continue to meet their regulatory obligations despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19. It also details the work we have undertaken to strengthen the protections available for consumers of legal services.
COVID-19 and market impact
COVID-19 had a significant impact on both the legal profession and our own work this year. We worked closely with the government and the profession to support lawyers over this challenging time, allowing greater flexibility in meeting certain requirements (such as continuing professional development and payments for some fees). Our staff also quickly adapted to remote working by finding new ways of working and delivering services differently.
In 2019/20 the Public Purpose Fund recorded a net deficit of $38.2 million, with record low interest rates and extreme market volatility impacting significantly on our investment returns. While we recorded a drop in investment returns this year, across the last ten years the Fund’s cumulative net gains equated to more than $183 million. We remain in a strong financial position to continue our work protecting consumers and assisting the legal profession in meeting and maintaining its professional obligations.
Regulatory prevention programs
As a modern risk-based regulator, we focus our attention on preventing and mitigating harm to both clients and lawyers. We progressed several important projects this year, including our sexual harassment within the legal profession report and regulatory strategy; research into lawyer wellbeing; and our work promoting innovation within the profession.
Our funding programs
We also played an important role in supporting policy research, law reform, legal education and increasing access to justice via our funding programs. We provided $5 million in vital development funding for 15 legal and community organisation projects, as well as $35 million in funding for Victoria Legal Aid.
Enquiries, complaints and licensing
In March 2020 we introduced a new intake and triage process for complaints to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. We received 5,561 consumer enquiries, and opened 1,277 formal complaints against lawyers; a reduction on the previous year of 10% and 28% respectively.
The majority of complaints involved allegations of costs/billing errors, negligence (such as bad case handling) and dishonest or misleading conduct. As with previous years, the areas of law that featured the most complaints were family law, probate, conveyancing and commercial law.
We also registered 24,495 lawyers, an increase of 4.2%, and provided assistance to many thousands of lawyers about their regulatory responsibilities.
Among the important consumer protection functions we exercise are our compliance and enforcement activities. It is critical that consumers of legal services have trust and confidence in the quality of the legal services being provided to them and in the lawyers who provide them. Through our role of regulating lawyers we aim to ensure that this trust and confidence is maintained and enhanced by our actions.
This year we protected Victorian consumers of legal services by:
- Carrying out 465 trust account investigations
- Undertaking 94 disciplinary investigations
- Finalising 14 prosecutions at VCAT and pursuing a further 16 matters
- Successfully applying to remove one lawyer from the Supreme Court’s Roll of Australian lawyers
- Paying a total of $871,671 in compensation payments to 6 clients who lost money or property they entrusted to their lawyer
- Providing guidance to non-lawyers and, where necessary, prosecuting them for unqualified legal practice.
We also launched an expert consumer panel to provide us with a more detailed understanding of consumer needs. Our panel commenced work on an important initiative to apply consumer principles to legal service regulation and the provision of legal services in Victoria. The Panel is the first of its kind for legal regulation in Australia, and its members bring strong and diverse experience to help us put consumers at the centre of legal services and regulation.
Quotes to be attributed to Fiona McLeay, Board CEO and Commissioner
“Despite the year’s challenges, we have made significant progress on many of our key projects and organisational improvements. Our achievements over the past 12 months reflect our modern, risk-based approach to regulation and could not have been realised without the passion and commitment of our people”.