Law firm's 'demeaning' behaviour could spark action
THE conduct of a law firm which represented a 'cult leader' in a failed defamation case will be scrutinised by the courts.
Justice Julia Lonergan handed down her judgment on two final aspects of the case, including costs, on Thursday.
But Justice Lonergan has also set down a hearing date when she will take submissions on whether Northern Rivers-based Universal Law, which represented Serge Benhayon in his failed defamation case against blogger and former client Esther Rockett, should be referred to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner for investigation over certain conduct during the case.
The jury found the statement Mr Benhayon - who is the founder of Universal Medicine - was "leader of a socially harmful cult", among others, to be true.
In her judgment on Thursday, Justice Lonergan recalled three "broad areas of conduct" identified by Ms Rockett's barrister, Tom Molomby.
Justice Lonergan said the most "troubling" conduct was correspondence to Ms Rockett from Universal Law at the time of her father's illness and death in late 2017.
"The defendant notified Universal Law, in the context of needing to complete a litigation task, that her father was seriously ill," Justice Lonergan said.
"She requested that her father's condition be kept confidential."
The court heard Universal Law replied: "It is not open to you unilaterally to impose upon or enforce against our clients and our firm, a gag on the disclosure of information contained in your emails...Our client's future use of the information (if any) is a matter for our clients."
The day of Ms Rockett's father's funeral, when the law firm had received a "polite and low-key request" to avoid correspondence about the litigation "out of respect", they sent her a 31-page letter via email.
Justice Lonergan said the letter, which related to an ongoing dispute about the discovery of documents, had a tone that was "unnecessarily peremptory and demeaning".
"There was no order or compulsion requiring the letter be sent that day," she said.
"The choice of date seems to have been deliberate.
"Most concerningly, the letter contains a number of personal insults, directed to the defendant, about her character, professionalism, motivation and probity."
She said these comments were "at best, unprofessional and most discourteous" and "at worst, bullying and harassment, deliberately deployed at a time when the defendant is likely to be distracted, sad and vulnerable, with the aim of demoralising her about the litigation she was defending".
"There is no place for any such personal remarks and insults in any professional correspondence in legal proceedings," Justice Lonergan said.
"Solicitors have ethical duties and obligations."
Justice Lonergan noted it was unclear "if Universal Law has any affiliation with Universal Medicine".
"It may well be a coincidence that their names are similar," she said.
She will hear submissions from both parties about whether she should Universal Law's conduct to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner in a hearing on Wednesday.