As in most countries not everyone, who is qualified to practise law, is in fact a good practitioner.
Hence in most countries lawyers are compelled to undertake a number of hours of post-qualification education every year – to keep up to date with the latest legislation, court decisions, and best practices all designed to ensure that members of the public are well served legally.
In Vanuatu the Law Council has the ability to compel all practising lawyers to undertake such post- qualification continuing legal education (“CLE”). It is understood that the necessary regulations will soon be passed to make this a mandatory requirement for all who seek to practise law here. That is to be encouraged for the benefit of the whole community.
As well, as a means of keeping some control over the actions of lawyers, the Law Council, has in early 2017, established a Disciplinary Committee pursuant to section 7 of the Legal Practitioner’s Act [Cap 119] (the “LPA”) to hear complaints about legal practitioners and their employees. That Committee was appointed for 12 months as from 16 February 2017. During the life of that committee a number of complaints were received which, for a variety of reasons, were unfortunately not able to be dealt with.
Earlier this year, on 16 June 2018, a second Disciplinary Committee was appointed – this time for a longer period of almost 2 years. The Committee has already dealt with the first two complaints, and the Committee’s decisions will be published on PACLII. It is a matter of public record and anyone who wishes can ask for a copy of the decision at the Supreme Court Office.
The Committee is undertaking consideration of a third complaint this week – a decision in respect of that matter is expected to be released in the near future. A fourth complaint will be addressed in mid-October 2018.
The work of the Committee is important. It is effectively the legal profession itself supervising the conduct of current practising members to ensure that the public not only has access to the law, but that they are given the quality of service one might expect in a constitutional democracy such as Vanuatu.
The members of the Committee comprise a current Supreme Court Justice, nominated by the Chief Justice; a legal practitioner, nominated by the Attorney General; and three members of the community who do not practise law but are considered suitable by the Law Council. The current members are:-
- Gus Andrèe Wiltens
- Frederick Gilu
- Merelyn Tahi
- Sofia Shah and
- David Russet
Section 8 of the LPA sets out the requirement that anyone wishing to complain must do so in writing to the secretary with specific allegations of misconduct – either acts or omissions – set out in an accompanying affidavit (sworn statement). Section 9 of the LPA sets out the powers of the Committee, if a complaint is upheld. The Committee may:-
- Order the practitioner be struck off the Register.
- Suspend the practitioner from practise for such period as it thinks fit.
- Impose a fine of not more than Vt 150,000.
- Order the practitioner to pay compensation of not more than Vt 150,000, in addition to any penalty.
- Reprimand the practitioner
- Where an employee has been found to have misconducted him/herself, the Committee may order that no legal practitioner may employ that person for a limited, or an unlimited, period
- The Committee can also order a complainant and/or the person complained against to pay costs.
There is provision for an appeal against the Committee’s decision to the Supreme Court, under section 10 of the LPA.
The purpose of this article is to not only raise awareness of the Disciplinary Committee and its work, but also to make clear that all complainants will, from now on, be acted upon within a reasonable period of time. Members of the public are encouraged to come forward and lodge complaints if they are unhappy either with the conduct of legal advisors or their employees. Contact: Viran Molisa Trief, Secretary, Vanuatu Law Council and Disciplinary Committee Email: firstname.lastname@example.org