'Cult' leader's lawyer to be referred to legal watchdog
A SOLICITOR who represented the "leader of a socially harmful cult" will be referred to the Legal Services Commissioner for potential disciplinary action, pending any successful appeal.
Paula Fletcher represented Universal Medicine founder Serge Benhayon in a three-year defamation case against blogger and former client Esther Rockett.
After a jury found Ms Rockett had not defamed Mr Benhayon - that is, they found a large number of statements, including that he was "the leader of a socially harmful cult" and "a charlatan" to be true - Justice Julia Lonergan awarded the blogger costs.
She then called for submissions on whether or not Ms Fletcher, who works for Northern Rivers firm Universal Law, should be referred to the Legal Services Commissioner for consideration on whether to bring a complaint for alleged unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct.
Pivotal to this decision was a lengthy letter Ms Rockett received from Ms Fletcher the day of her father's funeral in September 2017, along with another letter received six days prior.
"The areas of concern... centred around a time where the defendant had no solicitor acting for her, thus correspondence regarding the proceedings was being received by her directly," Justice Lonergan said.
When Justice Lonergan handed down her judgment on Wednesday, the court heard Ms Fletcher had claimed in an affidavit that she believed Ms Rockett's request to not be "badgered with unnecessary correspondence" as she prepared for her father's funeral related only to Queensland defamation proceedings in which she was representing Ray Karam and Caroline Raphael against Ms Rockett.
As the 31-page letter delivered on the day of Ms Rockett's father's funeral related to the NSW proceedings involving Mr Benhayon, the solicitor did not perceive an issue, the court heard.
"I should have, but failed, to consider that Ms Rockett's personal circumstances applied to both sets of proceedings," Ms Fletcher said in the affidavit.
"I should have been more sensitive to Ms Rockett's personal circumstances and refrained from sending the correspondence until after the funeral."
In the document, Ms Fletcher said she apologised "unreservedly" for sending the letters in question and acknowledged one of them "contained passages that were insulting and demeaning".
The court heard Ms Fletcher had received drafts of each letter from Mr Benhayon's counsel, but agreed she contributed to those drafts and signed each one.
The court heard Ms Fletcher identified barrister Charles Wilson and his wife, paralegal Allison Greig, both of whom had "significant involvement in Universal Medicine and were friends of the plaintiff, Mr Benhayon" as being involved with drafting the letters.
Ms Fletcher said while her firm acted for Mr Benhayon and noted her daughter was the first wife of Mr Benhayon's son, the firm was "completely independent of and not affiliated financially or otherwise with the entity controlled by ... Universal Medicine".
Justice Lonergan said Ms Fletcher's evidence on why she sent the lengthier letter was "hollow and unconvincing" and her demeanour and answers while being cross-examined were "unimpressive".
Ms Lonergan said Ms Fletcher's excuses "suggest that (she) is still deflecting responsibility away from herself for conduct which in my view was likely to have been deliberate".
In earlier submissions, Ms Fletcher's barrister Andrew Naylor said the court had "admonished" his client in an April judgment on costs and that "no purpose would be served by a referral to the Legal Services Commissioner".
But Justice Lonergan found Ms Fletcher was not "candid with the court" and "continued to make excuses for her conduct".
"The apology to Ms Rockett ... was not made until it was led from her in the witness box," she said.
Justice Lonergan accepted Mr Naylor's argument that there was "no need" to refer Universal Law as a firm, "given the lawyer responsible for the conduct is known".
But she opted to refer Ms Fletcher for consideration of a complaint before the Legal Services Commissioner of NSW.
"There is a public interest in ensuring that unsatisfactory professional conduct, or at the least conduct in a professional capacity that is in breach of the fundamental duties of solicitors, should be investigated by the appropriate professional body," she said.
Justice Lonergan granted a 28-day stay of her order, allowing Ms Fletcher time to consider a potential appeal.
Ms Fletcher's firm and her counsel were approached for comment.