Legal Services Commissioner v Souki  VCAT 663 (17 June 2022)
This case was a proceeding by the Legal Services Commissioner against a solicitor including for drafting baseless caveats. The solicitor pleaded guilty to a number of charges. The form of Senior Member E. Wentworth’s decision was first to set out the Findings, second the Orders, third the Senior Member’s Reasons (27 paragraphs), and finally, occupying most of the decision, an “Appendix: Relevant Extracts from the Parties’ Submissions”. The Appendix included agreed proposed penalties and the solicitor’s explanations. The Senior Member stated (paragraph 20) –
“The Commissioner’s submissions noted that the lodging of such [improper or baseless] caveats by legal practitioners is ‘endemic’. If that is so, it is a shameful matter for the legal profession.”
Last October I gave a paper on caveats at the Commercial Law Discussion Group Conference (being a Discussion Group of Victorian solicitors) and at least one experienced solicitor, without demur from the other solicitors present, disputed the word ‘endemic’, regarding it as unjustified.
The solicitor acted for three clients in a Supreme Court proceeding in which they were seeking to recover their investment in a gold bullion firm. The facts related to the caveat charge (including the solicitor’s explanations) were –
- The solicitor was a young practitioner who was in her early years of practice as a principal of her own law practice.
- Her clients requested her to caveat over a property owned by a defendant in the Supreme Court proceeding. They had no estate or interest in the property and were at most prospective judgment creditors.
- The solicitor informed her clients that caveating was not possible as they had no caveatable interest, the clients were reluctant to accept that advice, the solicitor sought advice from counsel in conference with the clients, and counsel also told the clients that they had no caveatable interest.
- The property was listed for sale and again the clients insisted on caveating. The solicitor had a number of discussions with the clients about the issue, reiterating that no caveatable interest existed.
- The clients then asked the solicitor to provide them with a pro forma caveat form. Accordingly on 24 May 2017 the solicitor provided them with caveat forms she had prepared which: claimed that the clients had an ‘interest as chargee’ based on an agreement with the registered proprietor of that date; sought an absolute prohibition on dealings with the property; and erroneously listed the address for notices under the caveat as the property itself not the address of the clients (this error was attributable to the LEAP system and occurred without the foreknowledge of the solicitor).
- The solicitor continued to reiterate to the clients that there was no basis for the caveats.
- In July 2017 the clients lodged the caveats.
The solicitor was charged with professional misconduct in that she prepared and facilitated the lodgment of erroneous and defective caveats in the knowledge that the caveators had no estate or interest in the property capable of supporting a caveat. She admitted that she facilitated this lodgment and that her conduct involved a substantial failure to reach or maintain a reasonable standard of competence and diligence which amounted to professional misconduct. (The solicitor’s explanation included that, although she acknowledged that the provision of the pro forma caveat form was improper, changes to the LEAP and caveat process now meant that a pro forma caveat form could no longer be provided to clients).
The parties agreed that a reprimand, and an order that the solicitor complete an additional three CPD units on substantive property law and ethics, was an appropriate remedy. The Tribunal imposed this penalty and also suspended the solicitor’s practising certificate for a month to be served concurrently with a suspension ordered in respect of another charge. The Tribunal stated () that this suspension was in the interests of general deterrence and to signal the seriousness of the conduct. It added () that if the matter had involved a more experienced practitioner or a higher degree of culpability, a more substantial interference with the right to practise would be have been warranted.
Owen Dixon Chambers West
Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Guirgis v JEA Developments Pty Limited  NSWSC 164 (26 February 2019), Kunc J (Supreme Court of New South Wales)
This is the first NSW case dealt with in the caveatsvictoria.blog. It is a reminder of the care needed in lodging a caveat, specifically here in the context of the Electronic Conveyancing National Law, as denoted in the opening words of the judgment –
“Lodging a caveat is not a trivial act to be undertaken lightly. It has immediate legal effect and can have significant commercial and financial consequences. Legal practitioners and licensed conveyancers who advise on, prepare and certify caveats that are lodged electronically have an important role to ensure that obviously unmeritorious caveats are not lodged. This judgment arises from a failure by a licensed conveyancer to perform that role properly”.
The facts were –
- The plaintiff and his wife were engaged in Family Court litigation. She was the sole director, secretary and shareholder of the defendant.
- In December 2018 he entered into a contract for the sale of a property owned by him, with settlement due on 25 February 2019.
- On 11 February 2019 a caveat was lodged over the land electronically through PEXA. The caveat had been prepared, certified, electronically signed and lodged on behalf of the defendant by a licenced conveyancer, whose company was described on the caveat as the “Responsible Subscriber”. The estate or interest claimed was a charge, by virtue of an agreement between the defendant and the plaintiff. Under “Details Supporting The Claim” was “Outstanding loan”. The caveat also stated certain things to the best of the knowledge of the Subscriber including that the caveator had a good and valid claim to the estate or interest claimed.
- After his solicitor unsuccessfully attempted to obtain evidence of the alleged agreement from the conveyancer, the plaintiff commenced this proceeding seeking orders under ss. 74MA and 74P of the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) for the removal of a caveat and for compensation against the defendant.
- At the hearing on 20 February the plaintiff asserted that he had never entered into any agreement of the kind alleged in the caveat. Mrs Guirgis, who appeared in person, stated that there was no written loan agreement and insofar as there was any agreement it was “a husband and wife agreement” containing nothing giving the defendant a mortgage, charge or other interest in the property. She acknowledged that the caveat was a negotiation tactic for a Family Court hearing. The defendant was ordered to remove the caveat with costs.
- The judge questioned Mrs Guirgis about her dealings with the conveyancer. Mrs Guirgis stated that: she phoned the conveyancer and asked that caveat be lodged; the conveyancer gave no advice about this; and the conveyancer asked whether there was an agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant to which the answer was yes, but the conveyancer did not ask whether it was in writing or oral.
- His Honour formed a prima facie view that the conveyancer had been delinquent, required the conveyancer to appear to explain why the papers should not be referred to the appropriate body to consider disciplinary action, and on the conveyancer appearing and apologizing etc (under the heading in the judgment “The Conveyancer’s contrite explanation”, including “It is the first caveat I have ever put on” ) decided to take no further action, but also published his reasons “to make clear how seriously the court viewed the obligations of those who advise on, prepare and certify caveats” ().
His Honour –
- Set out at length the NSW statutory provisions on caveats and electronic conveyancing (ie the Electronic Conveyancing National Law). -
- Held that the caveat and the conveyancer’s purported certification of it were deficient in at least five respects. 
- As to the conveyancer’s representation that –
“The Caveator, to the best of the knowledge of the Subscriber identified in the execution of this Caveat document, has a good and valid claim to the estate or interest claimed as specified in this Caveat”.
held that “to the best of the knowledge” conveyed a representation that the conveyancer had a suitable level of knowledge about how an interest in land can arise and had taken reasonable steps to inform himself or herself of the relevant facts so as to be able to express a properly informed opinion. This was also true of the other statements in the caveat said to be “to the best of the knowledge of” the person or entity electronically signing it. Such statements did not, however, amount to an unqualified warranty of the existence of the relevant state of affairs. , 
- The conveyancer appeared to have lodged the caveat with either a reckless disregard for the conveyancer’s obligations or had failed to meet the standard of care to be expected of a reasonably competent conveyancer certifying a caveat. No reasonably competent conveyancer who had bothered to take proper instructions from Mrs Guirgis would have co-operated in the lodgement of the caveat. 
- His Honour concluded in part –
“As New South Wales’ conveyancing system moves to a completely electronic platform, the role of conveyancers, solicitors and others as persons qualified to prepare and lodge caveats becomes all the more important. Ordinary members of the public are, in practical terms, no longer able to lodge caveats without the intervention of a “Subscriber”, who in many cases will be a solicitor or licensed conveyancer. The requirement to give the requisite representations and certifications operates to confer on them the role of a guardian at the gate”. 
Victorian cases exposing delinquent lodgment of caveats by legal practitioners are: Legal Services Commissioner v Mercader  VCAT 2062; Pearl Lingerie Australia Pty Ltd v Giarratana  VSC 451; Legal Services Commissioner v Kotsifas  VCAT 1615 (arising from the previous case); Gatto Corporate Solutions Pty Ltd v Mountney  VSC 752. Space does not permit reference to any other than Mercader, which also arose in the matrimonial context.
In Mercader, on termination of her instructions for a wife in a matrimonial dispute, the solicitor lodged a caveat over the former husband’s property (in which the wife claimed a share) claiming an equitable estate in fee simple “By virtue of constructive trust”. The notion that the circumstances gave rise to the solicitor having a caveatable interest in the husband’s land was described by Judge Lacava as “a legal nonsense”  as was the interest claimed in the caveat . The solicitor was charged with unsatisfactory professional conduct by lodging and/or refusing to withdraw the caveat where she knew and/or ought to have known that she had no caveatable interest and by providing information to the Registrar of Titles that she ought to have known was false. She was convicted with the question of penalty adjourned.