Wednesday, 18 May 2016
Attwells v Jackson Lalic Lawyers  HCA 16 – High Court rules on the advocate’s immunity from suit
On 4 May 2016 the High Court handed down its decision on whether to extend the advocate’s immunity from suit to situations where negligent advice is given which leads to the settlement of a case by agreement between parties and consent orders. This case summary has been written for junior lawyers working in litigation and law students studying Ethics and the Legal Profession.
The advocate’s immunity from suit
The two High Court precedents on advocate’s immunity are:
1. Giannarelli v Wraith (1988) 165 CLR 543
The advocate’s immunity was said to extend beyond conduct of a case in court to “work done out of court which leads to a decision affecting the conduct of the case in court” (at 560). Mason CJ described two tests for determining whether work outside of court will attract the immunity:
a. “work done out of court which leads to a decision effecting the conduct of the case in court” (at 559)
b. “where the particular work is so intimately connected with the conduct of the cause in Court that it can fairly be said to be a preliminary decision affecting the way that cause is to be conducted when it comes to a hearing” (adopted from the New Zealand case of Rees v Sinclair  1 NZLR 180) (the “intimately connected” test).
In D’Orta the High Court held that these two tests are essentially the same.
2. D’Orta-Ekenaike v Victorian Legal Aid (2005) 223 CLR 1 (applying Giannarelli)
In D’Orta, the High Court confirmed there are two categories where the immunity arises (inside of court and outside of court) and approved Mason CJ’s scope of the immunity for work occurring outside of court. The High Court held the immunity applied in the facts before it where an accused was given negligence advice to plead guilty, as the acceptance of this advice to plead guilty effected the determination of the case by the court as the court cannot conclude its function until a conviction is recorded, and the decision about a plea of guilty is intimately connected to the hearing of a criminal case as it is a decision made preliminary to the hearing of a charge which effects the conduct to the matter before the court.
Facts in Attwells v Jackson Lalic Lawyers
Gregory Attwells was a guarantor of payment of liabilities of a company to a bank. The company defaulted on the payments and the bank commenced proceedings against both the company and the guarantors (see Jackson Lalic Lawyers Pty Ltd v Attwells  NSWCA 335). The guarantors were represented by Jackson Lalic Lawyers in the proceedings. Proceedings settled (on what turned out to be negligent advice from Jackson Lalic Lawyers). The settlement was reflected in consent orders. The negligent advice from Jackson Lalic Lawyers included that the guarantors would be liable to pay the bank $3,399,347, when the guaranteed amount was $1,856.122, and the guarantors were not liable to pay more than this amount. The guarantors signed the consent orders based on this advice. The guarantors commenced negligence proceedings against Jackson Lalic Lawyers in the NSW Supreme Court, where Smchmidt J ordered that the question of whether Jackson Lalic Lawyers is immune from suit be decided separately from the other issues in the negligence proceedings.
Does the advocate’s immunity extend to negligent advice which leads to the settlement of a case by agreement between the parties?
Court of Appeal - Jackson Lalic Lawyers Pty Ltd v Attwells  NSWCA 335
The Court of Appeal held that Jackson Lalic Lawyers’ advice was within the scope of the immunity as the advice fell into the category of work done out of court affecting the conduct off the case in court, that the advice was intimately connected with the conduct of the guarantee proceedings.
The High Court held 5:2 that the immunity does not extend to negligent advice that leads to a disadvantageous settlement, even where the settlement is made into consent orders. Nettle J and Gaudron J dissented in separate judgments.
French CJ, Kiefel, Bell, Gageler and Keane JJ (the majority judgment):
a. Intimate connection – look to the policy reason behind the immunity
The High Court majority began its analysis by identifying the policy reason behind the immunity. The rationale behind the advocate’s immunity is that the community at large has a vital interest in the final resolution of decisions by judicial determination, and that after a judicial determination has been made, it should not be open to collateral attacks seeking to demonstrate that a judicial determination is wrong (). The immunity exists to protect the public interest in the finality of judicial decisions (). This rationale is why the scope of the immunity is limited to conduct of the advocate which contributes to a judicial determination (). The Law Society of NSW (as an intervener in proceedings) submitted that the immunity should be extended otherwise lawyers will not encourage their clients to settle their claims, as they will not have immunity from protection (). The High Court rejected this argument, as it does not accord with the primary policy reason for the immunity. Extending the immunity to advice which leads to the settlement of litigation takes the immunity away from its primary rationale, which is to protect the exercise of judicial power from collateral attack. The “intimate connection” between the advocate’s work and the conduct of the case in court must be such that the work affects the way the case is to be conducted so as to affect its outcome by judicial decision.
b. Historical connection alone is not sufficient
The joint judgment discussed what would constitute an “intimate connection”, distinguishing “merely historical connections” from “functional connections” (). The Law Society of NSW submitted that negligent advice not to settle is intimately connected with an ensuing judicial decision of the court so as to attract the immunity. The High Court rejected this “historical connection”, stating it is not sufficient that one event precedes another event to create an “intimate connection”. The “intimate connection” discussed in Giannarelli and D’Orta is a “functional connection” which is the connection required by the public policy reason for the immunity.
c. Consent orders
The settlement was embodied in consent orders, and the respondent argued that this involvement of the court was sufficient to constitute an “intimate connection”. The High Court rejected this argument, as the substantive content of the rights and obligations in the consent orders were determined by the parties without any determination by the court. The terms of the settlement agreement “were not, in any way, the result of the exercise of judicial power”. The High Court left the question open as to whether it would be different in situations where “the making of the order itself requires the resolution of issues by the exercise of judicial power” such as where representative proceedings are settled or where proceedings on behalf of a person under legal incapacity are to be compromised.
Gordon J held that the advocates immunity does extend to negligent advice leading to settlement where the agreement is reflected in consent orders. Gordon J focused on a different aspect of the plurality’s judgment in D’Orta, being that the immunity plays a part in a series of rules which are “designed to achieve finality in the quelling of disputes by the exercise of judicial power” (), equating the final quelling of disputes with “work intimately connected with” work in the court, and proceeded to focus on the final quelling of disputes rather than the intimate connection test the plurality focused on. While the majority distinguished Attwells v Jackson Lalic Lawyers from D’Orta, Gordon J argued that both cases involved a final quelling of the outcome, in that both admissions were given legal effect by authority of the court – in one case by entry of conviction, and in the other by entry of verdict and a judgment. Gordon J was careful to analyse the orders made by the court. Orders 1-9 constituted orders of the court recording a verdict and judgment made, whereas paragraphs 10 onwards in the orders merely noted the agreement made between the parties. The verdict and final judgment contained in Orders 1-9 constituted a final quelling of a controversy by exercise of judicial power which attracts the advocate’s immunity from suit.
Nettle J agreed with Gordon J’s reasons for dissenting, focusing on the final quelling of a dispute by judicial power. Even where the parties are agreed on the orders which should be made for the final determination of their rights and liabilities, it remains for the court to be satisfied that it is appropriate to do so to order, which involved judicial power and attracts the advocate’s immunity.